10 SmallSat Startups Launching Fleets into Outer Space
We recently introduced you to the super-secret, shadowy government agency known as DARPA. The organization is behind the development of everything from the internet to Google Maps, and they generously fund innovative tech startups when not extracting advanced technologies from alien spaceships. The agency blinked into existence when in 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Sixty years later, there are a few more in orbit around Earth. One estimate says there are more than 4,000 man-made satellites cruising at 17,000 mph around the globe, though only about 1,500 of those are operational. Based on the number of private companies and startups planning to launch their own satellite armadas into space, low earth orbit (LEO) is about to get busier than the 101 during LA rush hour.
Billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson want to launch literally thousands of satellites to provide global internet. That means you can work anywhere in the world and instantly post a selfie on Facebook about what a digital nomad you’ve become. Musk is working through his private company SpaceX, while Branson founded OneWeb specifically for developing a satellite-based internet constellation. The development of small spacecraft, or SmallSats in the NewSpace lingo, have made it possible to launch dozens or even hundreds of satellites on the cheap. Definitions vary on what qualifies as small, but the experts at NASA define SmallSats as satellites weighing between 1 and 180 kilograms. A type of nanosatellite (1-10 kilograms) called a CubeSat has become particularly ubiquitous throughout the space industry.
SpaceWorks Enterprises, an aerospace engineering design and analysis firm, says there are about 800 SmallSat (up to 50 kilograms) launches on the books between 2017 and 2019. After 2023, it estimates there will be more than 450 SmallSat launches annually. Meanwhile, MarketsandMarkets estimates that the SmallSat market will take off from about $3 billion this year to about $7.5 billion in 2022. These small satellites aren’t just for downloading porn maps in the remote Amazon rainforest. Many startups are preparing to launch satellite constellations to track weather, monitor environmental changes, connect devices, and even store data like an orbiting Fort Knox.
Planet is the 800-pound gorilla among the rapidly growing number of companies competing for dollars in the earth observation (EO) business using SmallSats. It operates the largest commercial Earth-imaging constellation in existence, with 149 satellites currently in orbit. It has the bucks to back it: $183 million so far. About two-thirds of that money came from equity and debt funding in 2015. Earlier this year, it released its Planet Explorer Beta, an online tool that lets you time travel across the globe, watching the world change from a bird’s eye view in space. Learn more about their latest toy below:
Based in San Francisco, Planet produces up to 10 terabytes of data every day, as it collects images to track environmental changes, agricultural production and a host of other things.
A small startup in Finland called ICEYE has raised $2.8 million in equity funding, along with €2.5 million in government funding from the European Union. Its microwave radar technology trumps optical instruments in that it can penetrate cloud cover and see in the dark. Its polar-orbiting SmallSats will specialize in providing imagery to the maritime industry.
Spire, a company we previously profiled, also targets marine customers.
Tokyo-based Axelspace plans to launch 50 SmallSats, with the goal of taking an “Earth selfie” every 24 hours. The company has wrangled $16.05 million in funding. The startup says it plans to launch its first three microsatellites by the end of this year. Images will be shot at a resolution of 2.5 meters.
That should be clear enough to see deforestation but not the size of Donald Trump’s hands.
A Silicon Valley satellite company conveniently located at NASA AMES Research Park, Astro Digital completed a Series A in March for $16.65 million. It plans to put 30 satellites into orbit. The first 10 will be CubeSats, followed by 20 larger satellites capable of higher-resolution imagery. Astro Digital co-founder Bronwyn Agrios told SpaceNews that the startup’s business model moves away from selling pretty pictures of the Earth to providing products based on that imagery.
A company called Satellogic out of Argentina caught our attention because among its backers is Chinese mobile communications giant Tencent Holdings. Satellogic has $29 million in disclosed funding from a Seed round, while Tencent and Valor Capital Group took the lead on an undisclosed Series A two years ago. Update: $27 million Series B closed on June 23, 2017. It reportedly counts Google among its customers for EO imagery. Plans are to field a 300-SmallSat-strong constellation, shooting for a price range $5 to $ 25 per square kilometer. A visa photo from Walgreens will cost you more money.
GeoOpitcs in Pasadena has taken in $5.15 million. It focuses on weather forecasting, as well as environmental monitoring. The company is one of the first commercial satellite operations to work with NOAA. The $695,000 contract is something of a proof-of-concept to see if the private sector can provide services cheaper than the government. In this case, GeoOptics will test its advanced Global Positioning System Radio Occultation sensors against government instruments. Distortions in GPS signals traveling through the atmosphere can map temperature and humidity levels for creating weather models. Your weatherman needs all the help he can get.
Another startup out of California, Hera Systems has grabbed $4.2 million in equity funding, with a $2.4 million Series A back in September 2015. More recently, Hera closed on a deal with NASA to incorporate the space agency’s tech into the company’s satellite design. It plans to offer very high-resolution imagery (one-third-meter resolution) at Walmart prices. The pricing scheme announced last year offered pictures of the Earth for as low as $1 for archived one-meter resolution imagery, $2 for new one-meter imagery orders, and $3 for 50-centimeter resolution products.
A different sort of satellite communications company, Kepler Communications has raised $5.1 million, most of it coming from a Seed round last summer. As the company puts it, Kepler is “building cell phone towers in space”. Basically what that means is that Kepler’s constellation of SmallSats, operating on the Ku band, will allow other space assets, such as Planet’s fleet of satellites, to communicate without the need for ground stations.
Even more interesting is the constellation’s applications for Internet of Things, providing connectivity of sensors for everything from tracking shipments to monitoring soil and water usage on farmland.
Update 10/16/2018: Kepler Communications has raised an additional $16 million for the development and launch of its first generation satellite constellation, comprised of up to 15 satellites to boost communications, Internet of Things connectivity and a planned in-space data relay network. This brings the company’s total funding to $21.1 million to date.
An Australian startup also targeting IoT from space, Fleet Space Technologies nabbed $3.75 million this past April. The company wants to launch a fleet of more than 100 low-cost SmallSats for machine-to-machine communication for the 75 billion (!?!) devices it says will be online by 2025. For free.
We’re not quite sure how that works—will your smart cocktail blender play ads between rounds of drinks?—but the company expects to begin launching in 2018.
There’s not much information out there about the funding behind LA-based Cloud ConstellationCorp., but perhaps that’s not too surprising given that the startup is peddling an orbital Swiss bank account for data. Its SpaceBelt cloud infrastructure sends data by satellite, bypassing the internet altogether. The company says its satellite network will protect data in services ranging from healthcare to government. Last year, Cloud Constellation announced that the SolarCoin Foundation, which gives out cryptocurrency to reward producers of solar power, will buy storage capacity on SpaceBelt for its blockchain wallet. In March, Cloud Constellation received a patent for its SpaceBelt technology.
Outer space will soon become as crowded as the commercial satellite startup space, especially when it comes to SmallSat products from NewSpace entrepreneurs. However, as SpaceNews points out, there are already signs of consolidation. Google recently sold SmallSat operator Terra Bella to Planet three years after it bought the company for $500 million (losing a rumored $200 to $300 million in the process). Meanwhile, Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates is buying publicly traded DigitalGlobe (NYSE:DGI), which operates the high-resolution Worldview satellites, for $2.4 billion. In turn, DigitalGlobe had acquired rival GeoEye in 2013.
It’s not hard to imagine that a company like Planet might continue to add to its galactic empire with more acquisitions, perhaps with some of the players we’ve covered here. The question that still remains: When will we actually see an exit of some significance?