A private San Francisco start-up has launched the largest-ever ensemble of Earth-imaging satellites
Scientific American, 10 January 2014
The constellation of Earth-imaging satellites launched yesterday—28 individual sputniks, called “Doves,” each about the size of its namesake and weighing in at a svelte five kilograms—is on its way to the International Space Station. If all goes well, by the end of the month “Flock 1,” as the group is called, will distribute its nanosatellites in Earth orbit, the better to photograph the complete surface of the planet at high resolution 365 days a year. The satellites will provide near-continuous pictures of Earth’s surface at a resolution of three to five meters per pixel.
Planet Labs, the San Francisco start-up that built Flock 1, is one of a growing group of companies and governments launching very small satellites. As their cost and size have plummeted, partly in response to the availability of standardized off-the-shelf components, nanosatellites such as CubeSat, have opened up unprecedented opportunities in remote sensing. Unlike traditional Earth-imaging satellites, which cost millions to build and launch, each of Planet Labs’ diminutive sky cameras, which in its predeployed state resembles a child’s kaleidoscope, comes in at a fraction of that cost.