Seven years ago, a team of ex-NASA physicists and engineers began building their first small satellite prototype in a residential garage in suburban California. Today, that team, now known as Planet, owns the largest constellation of small satellites in space at 144 and is poised to make a major acquisition from Google.
Planet announced February 3 its intent to acquire Google’s small satellite business, Terra Bella, along with its fleet of seven SkySat satellites—a deal that will make Planet the undisputed leader in small satellite commercial remote sensing.
Mike Safyan, Planet’s director of launch and regulatory affairs, called the deal a “win-win for everyone involved.”
February 14, on the heels of the Terra Bella announcement, Planet launched 88 Dove satellites—the largest constellation ever to reach orbit—aboard a PSLV rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India. This marked a milestone Planet refers to as “Mission 1,” achieving the ability to image the entire surface of the Earth on a daily basis.
“To deliver on that promise is a very big deal to us,” Safyan said. “Having that data set and being able to provide it to our users and customers is one of the most exciting things. [With] the SkySats the realm of possibility only expands.”
Leadership from both Planet and Terra Bella emphasized the complementary nature of the high-resolution SkySat constellation to Planet’s current constellation of Doves—medium-resolution CubeSats that capture photos at three to five meters per pixel. The SkySats are more targeted and collect rapidly updated images of select areas of the globe at sub-meter resolution. The Doves continuously monitor huge swaths of land every day, and the SkySats operate on a command-based tasking model.
“[SkySats] actually go and select targets to image where we’ll need updated, higher resolution imagery,” Safyan said.
The dual-layered approach will open up new markets for the company, such as aiding first responders after disasters and monitoring change in crowded urban areas.
“For some applications, like agriculture, you don’t necessarily need high resolution,” Safyan said. “You can do a lot with the three- to five-meter resolution of the Doves. There are other applications which are better with higher resolution imagery, and that’s where the SkySats come in to expand our product offering.”
Historically, Planet has offered medium-resolution imagery from CubeSats. In 2015, supporting this niche focus, Planet acquired Berlin-based BlackBridge, including five RapidEye satellites with similar operability and mid-level resolution to the Dove constellation. The RapidEyes have worked in concert with the Doves for roughly six months.
“Three- to five-meter resolution … provides a very unique data set that’s not available from other providers,” Safyan said. “But we also recognized that there are other needs in the remote sensing world that can be fulfilled with different capabilities, with different satellites.”
Financial details of Planet’s Terra Bella acquisition have not been made public. In 2014, Google acquired Terra Bella, then known as Skybox Imaging, for $500 million.
The Planet-Google agreement includes a multi-year contract through which Google will purchase access to Planet’s Earth imaging data. Additionally, a significant but unspecified number of Terra Bella employees will transition from Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif., to Planet headquarters in San Francisco.
Photo Credit: Planet