Startups launch their products – literally

New York TimesMarch 23, 2014 

— It was party time at the Planet Labs satellite factory, in an unkempt office in the trendy South of Market neighborhood.

A man in a blue tuxedo shared pancakes with about two dozen young engineers at the space startup. The air was filled with the smell of bacon and the voices of Russian and Japanese astronauts. The astronauts communicated over a video hookup to the International Space Station, 230 miles above the kitchen, one morning last month.

“Now we’re going to push the boundaries,” said Chester Gillmore, the company’s director of manufacturing. He was referring to his cooking skills, but he could just as well have been talking about his 40-employee company, which has already put dozens of small satellites in space. Once they’re connected, they’ll be able to provide near-constant images of what’s going on back on Earth.

And that, Gillmore believes, could be the basis of a very good business.

Silicon Valley, not content with changing how retailers, taxi companies and hotels do business, is taking its disruptive ways into outer space. Several young companies with roots in Silicon Valley are trying to elbow their way into a business long dominated by national governments and aeronautics giants such as Boeing.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, started by Tesla founder Elon Musk, is already a contractor for NASA, running supply missions to the International Space Station. Another startup, Masten Space Systems, with headquarters in Mojave, Calif., is developing rockets for unmanned research flights. Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View, Calif., makes satellites similar to those of Planet Labs, though they are significantly larger.

These startups have one thing in common: They think they can undercut the old guard with lower prices and smarter thinking.

While the Planet Labs staff ate pancakes that morning in February, two shoebox-size, 9-pound pods made in the company’s unconventional factory floated from the International Space Station toward a polar orbit of the Earth. Ten hours later, two more were released.

Mosaic of watchful Doves

The plan was to launch two to four a day, for a configuration of 28 satellites. The small, basic devices with solar panels and simple maneuvering equipment and radios are expected to last two to four years and are capable of taking weekly photos that show details as small as a car.

But that is just the start. Last week, Planet Labs announced that it would put about 100 satellites into space from the United States and Russia, bringing the total number of Doves, as the company calls them, to 131. That larger network, which Planet Labs hopes to complete within a year, is expected to create a daily photo mosaic of most of the Earth.

That mosaic could be valuable to private customers, like agricultural companies monitoring farmlands, or even to governments trying to figure out how to aid natural disaster victims. The company has so far booked contracts worth more than the $65 million in private equity it has raised, according to Will Marshall, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone. “Nothing here was prequalified to be in space,” Marshall said. “We bought most of our parts online.”

‘Anybody can do it’

Should Boeing be worried? Not yet, said James P. Lloyd, associate professor of astronomy and mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University. Lloyd said he believed the space market was big enough for expensive Boeing systems and cheaper alternatives from startups.

“Essentially anybody can do it, because of a combination of miniaturization, simplification and availability of technology for building small satellites has made it accessible in a way that has never been before,” he said.

Also, while Planet Labs can beat older competitors on price, those expensive features do matter, said David Friedberg, chief executive of Climate, an agricultural data analysis firm owned by Monsanto. Monsanto buys data from several older imaging satellites, he said, but is not a Planet Labs customer because it does not yet offer the infrared imagery needed to judge plants’ health. “Their real competition may be drones,” he said.

Still, Marshall is confident that his fast and cheap method will hold its own.

“This is the rapid prototyping, like you see with software, taken into space,” he said. “We can see rivers changing course. We can count individual trees.”

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