Satellogic EO (Earth Observation) Microsatellite Constellation
Satellogic is an Argentine company specialized in Earth-observation satellites, founded in 2010 by Emiliano Kargieman and Gerardo Richarte. The company HQs are based in Buenos Aires Argentina. The overall objective of Satellogic is to provide real-time imaging of the entire planet on a daily basis. Kargieman envisions accomplishing this goal through a constellation of EO satellites in the future. 1)
We want help solve the world’s most pressing problems. How will we provide food for nine billion people? How will we meet our energy needs without draining resources from future generations? How is our world changing? By building an accurate and up-to-date picture of our planet and the many forces that reshape it everyday, we work to answer these questions and more.
As I write this article in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I cannot but reflect on the role that our industry should be playing to help with the management of the crisis and the long road of reconstruction ahead, and that we are not yet in a position to fulfill. 2)
The wide adoption of satellite-based Earth Observation (EO) data can and should play a critical role in the resiliency mindset that dealing with the current crisis requires, but that in turn demands that we learn to build the technology, the infrastructure, and most specifically the business models needed to deliver actionable, affordable and timely information to actors globally.
This technology/infrastructure/business-model stack can be modeled based on the Platform-as-a-Service, Software-as-a-Service, and other -as-a-service models that have transformed the distribution of software and information, and are at the core of the digital transformation for a wide variety of industries. Subscription business models are, as of yet, seldom used and with very limited impact in the EO market — even if they have proven elsewhere that they are well adapted for the distribution of proprietary, high-value added solutions. I’ll take a look at the reasons for this, in order to see if we can derive a series of drivers for the adoption of subscription and metered business models for the EO industry.
We should start by taking a look at the Information Technology industry, where this new generation of subscription services encompasses the sharing of infrastructure, applications and business processes through the internet. The idea of sharing compute resources is at least as old as time sharing, back in the 1970s, but the scale and scope of the current services commercialized in subscription models had to wait for the availability of the security-rich, scalable, standards-based shared computer environments of what we call today cloud computing, in the second half of the 2000s. Those vast, internet connected data-centers allowed for the commoditization of compute infrastructure and the implementation of a metered, utility business model for computation1 that sets the foundation on top of which subscriptions to value-added services can be layered.
For all of the talk of the commoditization of satellite imagery, the EO market, and the wider Global Geo-information market, have not been able to rely on a metered supply that covers all the requirements to sustain such a revolution: necessity, reliability, usability, affordability and scalability.
Necessity — simply put, the fact that users consider this supply a necessity, clear in utilities such as water, electricity or communications; sometimes, as is the case in compute power, gaining this place takes time, but once the users start to count on this supply to conduct business, utilities blend into the background and become a necessary part of day-to-day life.
In the current EO market, mid and low-resolution satellite imagery might be argued to fulfill every other requirement in this list, but have failed to become a necessity for business: they are a nice to have, or good to have layer of information but users don’t depend on this data source to fulfill their day-to-day work. High-resolution, and very high-resolution data sources might become necessary for business, but have faced challenges in some of the other dimensions.
Reliability — the supply must be readily available for the user when and where it is needed. Both guaranteed revisits and remap frequency have proven challenging for the EO industry, for natural reasons, such as cloud-cover; for economic reasons, like the opportunity cost associated with tasking rights and pointing satellites to specific targets; and for regulatory reasons, like shutter-control and satellite operation licenses. Scaling the infrastructure in-orbit to address average service needs and accommodate peak demand seems to be the only viable alternative to address this issue.
Usability — regardless of how technologically complex they are to produce, utility services need to be simple and intuitive to use. Building a supply as easy to access as plugging into an electrical outlet or opening a faucet requires a great deal of standardization, packaging and processing to be able to support the most unsophisticated users. Current EO data products have still a long-way to go, but analysis ready data, and semantic layers based on standardized ontologies promise to bridge this gap.
Affordability — metered models, better adapted to less value-added products, or subscription models more adapted to value-added services and solutions, both require the end product to be affordable to customers. Affordability might require sophisticated pricing schemes, where the final price is tied to the value the service has for the end customer. In most instances in the existing EO market, the pricing is driven by the cost of data acquisition, and it prevents the utilization by customers much in need of it.
Scalability — utilities might be capital intensive, but they are businesses that favor economies of scale: as production capacity increases, the cost of production falls. In Earth Observation, there are still unexplored economies of scale on the supply side: for the moment, in everything but low-resolution data, the competition for scarce data acquisition resources has been the biggest barrier to scalability.
These five characteristics are the keys to drive wide adoption for EO data in mainstream applications, via the implementation of metered and subscription-based utility models to support a wide-range of users globally.
There are satellite-based services, such as GPS and geostationary communication relays, that have blended into the background for every business, government and individual. When I started Satellogic, I dreamt of a future where satellite-based EO would raise to the same fate: where our data would blend into the background and become a fundamental part of daily decision-making for every government, business and individual in the planet, even if in the end they gave no conscious thought to the fact that satellites were involved in those processes.
In the last decade, as an industry we have made some progress, but we are still short on delivering on this promise. I hope that by embracing the utility paradigm and building the infrastructure and business models I described, we can support a wide range of new applications and discover the true potential of our technology.
At Satellogic, we believe in helping to build a world where everyone is prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. We strive to help solve the world’s most pressing problems by building an accurate and up-to-date picture of our planet and the many forces that reshape it every day.
Until today, geospatial analytics has been mostly used as a planning tool on a strategic level, but the challenges we face force us to rush to transform these tools into tactical decision-making tools for everyday action.
In the midst of our current crisis, the components required to collect geospatial data at scale, analyze it and derive insights to feed a resilient loop, need to rise to the occasion to become a key part of the toolset to build and operate the resilient infrastructure of a very dynamic 21st century.
Founded in 2010, Satellogic S. A. is headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina from where company operations are managed. The Aleph satellites are manufactured at a facility in Montevideo, Uruguay, data processing is completed in Tel Aviv, Israel and sales departments are situated in different locations including the United States. 3)
The ÑuSat satellite series (Spanish: ÑuSat, sometimes translated into English as NewSat), is a series of Argentinean commercial Earth observation satellites. They form the Aleph-1 constellation, which is designed, built and operated by Satellogic. 4)
Table 1: List of Satellogic ÑuSat satellites (each satellite has a nickname)
Satellogic built also Argentina's first two demonstration nanosatellites. CubeBug-1 was launched on 26 April 2013 on a CZ-2D rocket from JSLC (Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center) of China, and CubeBug-2 was launched on 21 November 2013 on a Dnepr rocket from Yasny, Russia. The next satellite, BugSat-1, was launched as a secondary payload on a Dnepr vehicle from Yasny, Russia, on 19 June 2014.
The ÑuSat (Aleph-1) satellite series is operated by the Argentinean company Satellogic for the collection of Earth image products to be made available on the commercial market. The Aleph-1 constellation will consist of up to 25 satellites, enabling rapid revisit times and a large daily imaging capacity. 5) 6)
The first two operational Aleph-1 satellites, named Fresco and Batata, launched as secondary payloads on a Long March 4B rocket (CZ-4B) on May 30, 2016 – riding with the Ziyuan 3-02 satellite into a 480 x 498 km Sun-synchronous orbit at an inclination of 97.5º (10:30 LTAN). The Aleph-1 3 microsatellite was launched in June 2017 on a CZ-4B rocket alongside the HXMT (Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope), a Chinese X-ray Space Observatory, and two smaller secondary payloads, headed into a non-synchronous orbit at an inclination of 43º.
Figure 1: Two views of the ÑuSat satellite (image credit: Satellogic)
Developed and built by Satellogic S. A. in Argentina, the ÑuSat microsatellites are 43 x 45 x 75 cm in size with a mass of ~37 kg. The microsatellite bus and its imaging payload were tested as part of the BugSat-1 mission launched in 2014.
According to Satellogic, the first three Aleph satellites were used as a Constellation Prototype, verifying the integrated system from data acquisition in space, data downlink to the ground, processing and distribution to users as well as quick tasking of the satellites to be able to respond to targets of interest.
Communications: TT&C: Uplink is S-band; downlink in X-band at 100 kbit/s, custom protocol. Payload: Downlink in X-band DVB-S2. The subsystem has also a semi duplex UHF Ham frequency link @ 20 kHz BW for experiments and linear transponder UHF/VHF @30 kHz BW.
Figure 2: Aleph-1 internal architecture (image credit: Satellogic)
Sensor complement (Imager)
The satellites carry an imaging system operating in the visible and near infrared spectrum, generating still imagery and video of Earth at a ground resolution of up to one meter. Data products will be available to commercial customers and a constellation of multiple satellites will provide short turnovers from the request of imagery to their delivery, also supporting rapid re-visit times.
The imaging payload carried by each Aleph satellite covers a wide spectral range to deliver a combination of high-resolution multi-band products as well as hyperspectral products at excellent spectral resolution.
The panchromatic imager delivers black-and-white imagery at a ground resolution of one meter; it is sensitive in the complete visible range from 400 to 900 nanometers. Multispectral imagery delivered by the satellite also had a one-meter ground resolution and covers five spectral channels (400-690, 400-510, 510-580, 580-690 for RGB and broad range imaging and a near-IR channel from 750 to 900 nm). The multispectral imager also delivers imagery from a 5 km ground swath.
Each satellite, built for a three-year service life, collects up to 1,000 scenes per day with a data volume of around 50 MB per scene. The Aleph-1 satellites employ S-band for command uplink and two X-band feeds, one at 8030 MHz using a custom protocol for 100 kbit/s telemetry downlink and a high-speed DVB-S2 (Digital Video Broadcasting-Second Generation) channel operating at 8050-8100 MHz for downlink of image products.
Table 2: Payload description
Satellogic advertises its data products for a wide array of applications including precise agriculture and food production, monitoring tasks within the oil and gas industry, cartography and urban planning, climate monitoring, resource management, disaster response, and infrastructure monitoring.
The operational 25-satellite constellation will achieve a 1.2-hour revisit time, equivalent to 20 intra-day scenes from a chosen location. Future constellation concepts presented by Satellogic call for 100 satellites to achieve a 15-minute revisit time along with improvements in spectral, spatial and radiometric resolution and autonomous processing chains for even quicker turnaround. A 300-satellite constellation planned in the more distant future could accomplish a 5-minute revisit time.
Figure 3: Future plans (image credit: Satellogic)
• Svalbard of Norway is providing more than 10 passes per day, 2 antennas to support 2 satellites at the same time on polar orbits (Ref. 6).
• Cordoba, Argentina, located in the CONAE (Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales) facilities for ÑuSat-3, support for 6 passes per day (43 degrees).
Mission and development status
• September 4, 2020: Satellogic has launched their new spacecraft from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou via a launch procured by Spaceflight, Inc. — the satellite, ŇuSat-6 of the Aleph-1 series, a NewSat Mark IV, was delivered to a SSO (Sun-Synchronous Orbit) of 515 km on a Vega rideshare mission called SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) from Arianespace at 1:51 UTC on September 3, 2020. The flight, also known as VV16, involved 53 satellites for 21 customers from 13 countries around the world. 7) 8) 9)
- The spacecraft is named “Hypatia” after the philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician (350-415 A.D.) who lived in Alexandria and was a symbol of learning and science. She was renowned in her own lifetime as a great teacher and a wise counselor and as an icon for women’s rights.
- In line with Satellogic’s NewSats already in orbit, Hypatia is equipped with sub-meter multispectral and 30 meter hyperspectral cameras. This NewSat Mark IV is also equipped with new technologies in service of Satellogic’s research and development of Earth Observation (EO) capabilities. Upon successful commissioning, these new capabilities will be available to existing Satellogic customers.
- The launch demonstrates Satellogic’s ability to adapt its satellites to different rockets and deployment systems. This mission will also allow Satellogic to test sub-meter imaging technology.
- Satellogic’s current constellation remaps the planet at high resolution, which combined with Satellogic’s low-cost offering, has opened up applications for its customers across industries. Through the refinement of sub-meter imaging, the company plans to further drive down the cost of high-frequency geospatial analytics.
- This news follows Satellogic’s launch in January 2020 of two spacecraft with China Great Wall Industry Corporation. Satellogic now has 11 satellites on-orbit, bringing the company closer to its established vision of a constellation that is capable of delivering weekly, high-resolution remaps of the entire planet at a price that will set a new standard for access and affordability in this market.
- “We design and build our own satellites, which gives our R&D teams the chance to validate new technologies in every launch. Each new generation of our satellites includes new products and further delivers on the promise of new space,” said Satellogic Founder and CTO, Gerardo Richarte. “This launch is an exciting indicator of all that is to come as we continue to bring new solutions into production and deliver them into space and to our customers.”
- “Ambitious research and development efforts are crucial to both the development of the space industry and to humanity’s advancement overall,” said Stephane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. “We’re proud to work with Spaceflight to launch Satellogic’s newest satellite, which will enable Satellogic to test technologies that have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of high-resolution, high-frequency geospatial insights.”
Figure 4: Technicians at the Guiana Space Center lift a stack of 53 small spacecraft for attachment to the Vega rocket’s payload adapter (image credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon)
Figure 5: On 3 September (1:51 UTC) 2020, Vega flight VV16 lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana to progressively deliver 53 light satellites into Sun-synchronous orbits at 515 km and 530 km altitude on a mission lasting 124 minutes (image credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Vidéo du CSG - JM Guillon)
• December 19, 2019: Commercial Earth imaging company Satellogic announced Dec. 19 that it has raised $50 million to help it scale up its satellite constellation. 10)
- The company, headquartered in Buenos Aires, said it raised the new funding round from a mix of new and existing investors. Two existing investors, Chinese company Tencent and Brazilian fund Pitanga, contributed about 40% of the funding. The rest came from new investors, including IDB Lab, the “innovation laboratory” of the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank).
- “At IDB Lab, our mission is to leverage innovation towards inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Tomás Lopes Teixeira, senior investment officer at IDB Lab, in a statement. “We’re excited to support Satellogic’s mission of democratizing access to geospatial analytics solutions.”
Figure 6: Satellogic says its new funding round will enable it to scale up its satellite constellation, with 16 satellites scheduled for launch in 2020 (image credit: Satellogic)
- In an interview, Emiliano Kargieman, chief executive of Satellogic, said the funding will enable the company to speed up the deployment of its satellite constellation, with the goal of providing imagery of the entire Earth at a resolution of one meter and updated every week.
- “This funding, for us, is a way for us to continue to build on our momentum,” he said. “We’re going to use the proceeds to fund more technology development and product development, but also to scale up our constellation of satellites a little quicker.”
- The company has eight satellites in orbit and plans to launch 16 satellites in 2020, with the first two scheduled to launch from China in mid-January. “We’re looking at opportunities to see if we can speed up our rollout,” Kargieman said.
- To achieve that goal of “remapping” the globe weekly at one-meter resolution will require a constellation of about 90 satellites. He said the company has plans to do that over the course of 24 months, but will need to increase its manufacturing capacity and launch rate in order to do so.
- The technology development and the funding enables will go towards improving the capability of the satellites, with plans to sharpen the imaging resolution to 70 centimeters. Other improvements will include increasing downlink capacity and improved on-orbit processing of images. “We’re going to continue to push the limits of what you can do with a small optical imaging satellite,” he said.
- The funding will also enable more product development work. “We’re working on packaging the data that our satellites deliver in ways that can better serve our customers,” he said. “It will make it easier for companies to use satellite data for decision making.”
- The funding announcement comes three months after Satellogic announced a $38 million agreement with ABDAS, a Chinese data science company, for a product Satellogic calls a “dedicated satellite constellation.” ABDAS will have control over what sites to observe within China’s Henan Province when the satellites are passing overhead.
- The company hasn’t announced any new dedicated satellite constellation customers since then, but Kargieman said there’s considerable interest in the concept. “It’s had a lot of traction with governments, particularly governments that don’t have their own existing Earth observation capacity,” he said. “This ‘satellite as a service’ model that we’re offering has excellent capabilities at a fraction of the cost of any alternatives.”
- This funding round, he said, should be enough to see the company through to profitability. “With the backlog and pipeline that we currently have, and this funding, we can start scaling up our constellation of satellites and work on technology development and still be in a position to keep the company profitable and growing.”
• September 13, 2019: Earth imaging startup Satellogic has signed an agreement with a Chinese company that will give it access to its fleet of satellites for imaging a Chinese province. 11)
- The agreement with ABDAS, a Chinese data science company, gives that company exclusive access to Satellogic’s constellation of imaging satellites for imaging sites within China’s Henan Province. ABDAS will have control over what sites to observe within the province when the satellites are passing overhead. The agreement is valued at $38 million, Satellogic said in a Sept. 9 statement.
- The deal is the first for a concept Satellogic calls a “dedicated satellite constellation.” It gives customers exclusive control over a number of satellites over a specific geographical region. Customers have control over tasking of the satellites as if the satellites were their own.
- “It’s basically an alternative to having to go buy a satellite, or a number of satellites,” said Emiliano Kargieman, chief executive of Buenos Aires-based Satellogic, during an interview Sept. 12 at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week in Paris. “It has all the benefits of a service model. You get the ownership without the cost.”
- He said the company has seen “significant traction” for the dedicated satellite constellation concept for customers at both the regional and national level, particularly for countries that are just starting to develop Earth observation capabilities, such as in Latin America and Africa. “We expect this to be the first of many” such deals, he said.
- Satellogic currently has eight satellites in orbit, providing multispectral imagery at a resolution of one meter and hyperspectral imagery at a resolution of 30 meters. Sixteen more satellites are scheduled for the next several months on Long March and Vega rockets. That includes 13 on a dedicated Long March 6 rocket in July 2020.
- With at least 20 operational satellites in orbit, Kargieman said the company will be able to provide multiple revisits per day and “remapping essentially the entire planet” monthly. The company will then move on to a 90-satellite constellation that could be ready 24 months later, for weekly remapping globally. “We believe that is the sweet spot in terms of frequency and resolution to start really improving the more mainstream applications of Earth observation,” he said.
- He said the company is fully funded through the next set of satellites. Moving on to the 90-satellite constellation may require another equity funding round, he said, along with cash flow from operations and debt.
- A unique aspect of Satellogic’s satellites is the inclusion of the hyperspectral instrument, but Kargieman said there’s been little commercial interest in that so far. “Commercially, I think hyperspectral is still a very experimental capability,” he said, especially at the lower resolution that Satellogic’s satellites can provide.
- The company is making that hyperspectral data to researchers to experiment with it for potential applications, while using it in its own data analysis pipelines in combination with multispectral images and other data. Kargieman said the company will carry hyperspectral instruments on its upcoming set of 16 satellites, “because we believe there is value in this data set, and this value will grow as we have more frequency of data.”
• January 30, 2019: The Satellogic company announced a new contract Jan. 15 with China Great Wall Industry Corporation to launch 90 more microsatellites aboard Chinese Long March rockets, the largest single deal for Chinese launch industry on the international commercial market in more than 20 years. 12)
- “We’re putting our next 90 satellites into orbit with them over the next 24 months,” said Emiliano Kargieman, founder and CEO of Satellogic. “This is really a milestone for us, for Satellogic.”
- Satellogic and China Great Wall — the state-owned company charged with marketing Long March launch services internationally — declined to release the monetary value of the launch contract.
- Based in Argentina and backed by Chinese financing, Satellogic is building a fleet of satellites to cover the globe with visible, hyperspectral and infrared imagery. The company is one of several startups active in the commercial Earth-imaging market, along with Planet, BlackSky, ICEYE, and others.
- Each company offers a different service, but all use — or plan to use — nanosatellites and microsatellites to image the Earth, cutting costs compared to traditional satellite operators and providing the capability to scan the entire planet more rapidly.
- The 90-satellite fleet in development at Satellogic “allows us to build out the constellation that we need to map the planet at 1-meter resolution every week, and we think this combination of high-resolution data will really put us in a position to start paying off on the promise of Earth observation to improve decision-making for a wide range of industries, and democratizing access to this kind of information, which we believe is very valuable,” Kargieman said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.
- Five or six launches using a combination of Long March 6 and Long March 2D rockets will deliver the 90 satellites to orbit by the end of 2020, according to Satellogic, which is headquartered in Buenos Aires and has its satellite manufacturing facility in nearby Montevideo, Uruguay.
- The 90-satellite constellation planned by Satellogic follows the launch of five ÑuSat Earth-observing smallsats on Long March 4B and Long March 2D rockets since 2016. Three more ÑuSat-type satellites are slated to fly as secondary payloads on a Chinese launch later this year, before Satellogic begins flying spacecraft on dedicated Long March missions, Kargieman said.
- “The next three satellites that we will launch will actually be on a rideshare that we’ve had on contract for a while, and it’s been delayed a few times, as is usually the case with rideshares,” Kargieman said. “But this announcement that we’re making is for a series of dedicated launches, and part of the reason we believe this is a big milestone for us, is it allows us to get control of our own schedule, for the rollout of the satellites, and not having to depend on the primaries, due to the complications of piggybacks.”
- The Long March 6 rocket (CZ-6) can launch 13 of Satellogic’s satellites at a time, and the bigger Long March 2D (CZ-2D) can carry up to 36 spacecraft per mission, according to Kargieman. The first dedicated launch using the Long March 6 rocket is planned later this year.
- Satellogic builds and operates its own satellites, using no components that are sensitive to U.S. export restrictions under International Traffic in Arms Regulations, laws which prevent the use of some U.S.-made spacecraft components on satellites launching aboard Chinese rockets. Many satellites not manufactured in the United States often rely on subsystem components made by U.S. companies.
- “We designed the satellites outside of the U.S., we’re not using any of those components,” Kargieman said. “We have full control over the compliance. One of the design goals was to make it resilient to all of the different regulations, and part of that is avoiding the overhead and the complications of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) and other export restrictions.”
- “We’ve talked to all of the launch providers,” he said. “These 90 satellites are not the last 90 satellites that we will ever launch, and we expect to launch from a variety of different launchers in the future. The truth is it was a very natural decision for us because of the eight satellites that we’ve launched so far, seven were launched with Chinese rockets, and we’ve established a really good partnership with China over the years. We know the team well. Their team knows our team very well, so communication is very fluid.”
- In the end, China Great Wall’s launch offering was the “right agreement” for Satellogic, Kargieman said.
Figure 7: The ÑuSat-3 microsatellite of Satellogic captured this view of Buenos Aires in December 2017 (image credit: Satellogic)
- Kargieman said the next 90 satellites being built by Satellogic will be “incremental evolutions” of the ÑuSat design, also known as the Aleph 1 series. The spacecraft will launch into polar, sun-synchronous orbits around 500 kilometers in altitude.
- “They’re around 45 kg at launch, including propellant,” Kargieman said. “They’re sort of the size of a small fridge, and 1 x 0. 5 x 0.5 m. They’re pretty small and lightweight.”
- Satellogic currently has around 15 satellites in various stages of production at the company’s factory in Uruguay, according to Kargieman.
- ”In oil and gas, we have been (supporting) pipeline monitoring, oilfield monitoring for environmental and security reasons,” he said. “In forestry, we’re particularly focusing on operations management for forestry companies and for pulp and paper companies. In agriculture, we have been working on some applications that require higher-resolution. For governments, we’ve been working a lot on rural cartography, one of the areas where we expect a lot of value to come from 1-meter resolution data.
- “Irrigation management is another area where we have deployed applications and solutions. Supply chain management for companies with large agricultural footprints in their supply chain. These are some of the applications we have currently in the works,” he said.
• June 27, 2018: The Argentine satellite company Satellogic has launched a subscription-based service that will allow customers, including government agencies or non-governmental organizations, to purchase satellite images over a specified area of interest. 13)
- Satellogic satellites collect both high-resolution images, with 1-meter resolution, and hyperspectral images, which can show more detailed information about objects, such as their chemical composition. The company’s new venture, known as the Dedicated Earth Observation Satellite Program, offers access to customized images and data.
- Whether monitoring at the cars-on-roads level or tracking the environmental effects of a forest fire, among other activities, subscribers will be able to determine what photos should be taken. Each entity subscribing to a Satellogic constellation would have access to 10 satellites over a designated area at a cost of about $2 million dollars per satellite per year, or $20 million in total per year, according to Kurt Billick, vice president of strategy and business development at Satellogic.
- Potential customers might include corporations, NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and national or regional governments that do not have the capability to launch their own satellites, said the company’s founder, Emiliano Kargieman.
Figure 8: A sample satellite image of the city of Barcelona in Spain from the Argentine company Satellogic (image credit:Satellogic)
• June 2017: Satellogic, a company developing a constellation of satellites designed to provide high-resolution and hyperspectral imagery, has raised $27 million to continue that effort in a round led by a Chinese company. 14)
- Satellogic, a company with operations in several countries, announced its Series B funding round June 23, led by Tencent, a Chinese investment holding company that is one of the largest in the world. Also participating in the round were a Brazilian venture capital fund, Pitanga, and San Francisco-based CrunchFund, among other investors.
- In a June 26 interview, Emiliano Kargieman, founder and chief executive of Satellogic, said that the Series B fund will be used to scale up the company. “We’re mainly going to be using this to scale the satellites in our constellation and build up our commercial team as we start to go to market,” he said.
- Satellogic has been building small satellites that carry both a high-resolution camera capable of taking images with a resolution of one meter as well as a hyperspectral instrument with a resolution of 30 meters. The hyperspectral instrument can identify the chemical composition of what it observes, with applications for agriculture, environmental and related uses.
Figure 9: An example of one-meter imagery from Satellogic's satellites. Those spacecraft can also produce hyperspectral imagery (image credit: Satellogic)
- The company launched its third high-resolution satellite June 15 as a secondary payload on a Long March 4B rocket from the JSLC (Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center) in China. Two more are scheduled for launch in August, Kargieman said, followed by 12 to 18 in 2018. “We’re growing this to a constellation of over 60 satellites by 2019,” he said, with a long-term goal of 300 satellites by early next decade.
- Satellogic’s use of Chinese launch vehicles does create some complications for export control, given U.S. restrictions on the exports of satellites and related components to China. “It requires that we have a very tight control over our supply chain,” he said, to ensure compliance with those regulations.
- Despite the funding from Tencent and use of the Long March, Kargieman said that the company is looking into the use of other vehicles to launch its satellites as well. “We’ve talked with a variety of launch providers,” said, adding that working with China has gone well so far. “We’ll definitely continue to work with them, but in the future we don’t have exclusivity with any particular launcher.”
- The company currently has 90 employees distributed across offices in North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. That includes satellite research and development work in Argentina and software development in Tel Aviv. Kargieman said he estimated the company’s headcount would grow by 50 to 70 percent in the next year as it deploys more satellites and starts delivering data to customers.
- The company, as it develops and launches these satellites, is also working to demonstrate the benefits of hyperspectral imagery to potential customers. “When you get to hyperspectral imaging, it’s a very new payload,” he said. “That means there’s a little less understanding, at least commercially, of what it’s useful for.”
- Satellogic is working with prospective customers in several industries to demonstrate how hyperspectral imagery can be used, including how it can be combined with high-resolution images and other data sets. Kargieman emphasized providing customers not with raw images but with data products derived from that imagery.
- “Basically, we can attack the mass of information with machine learning techniques, deep learning, basically data science, to figure out how to extract the most value for our customers in each particular industry,” he said.
- Besides access to hyperspectral imagery, Kargieman argued that the company’s cost efficiency, which he attributed to unspecified technological advantages it has, will give it a competitive edge in a crowded Earth observation market and also grow demand for the information it can provide.
- “There seems to be a growing number of constellations of satellites, a growing number of companies building imaging satellites. That’s come to be too much for this small Earth observation market,” he said. “The mistake is looking at the existing Earth observation market and thinking that’s the market we’re going to be playing in.”
- Instead, he argued, lowering the cost of acquiring data “by several orders of magnitude” from conventional satellites, coupled with rapid revisit times and data analysis tools to extract information from that imagery, is what will set the company apart. “We’ll essentially open up completely new markets for Earth observation data,” he said. “We’ll make this data part of daily decision-making for every industry on the planet.”
• May 23, 2017: Never have so many private eyes looked down at Earth. In the past decade, about a dozen companies have formed to launch Earth-observing satellites. Few have sought to compete with sophisticated government-built instruments, but that is changing. 15)
- Private firms have begun to develop satellite radar systems and other advanced technologies in a bid to court scientists and other users, even as the US government is threatening to pare back its stable of satellites. Later this year, for example, the Finnish firm ICEYE plans to launch a prototype radar instrument — the first step, the company says, towards a constellation of 20 such probes. Until recently, commercial firms had shied away from pursuing radar satellites because they require heavy instruments and consume a lot of power.
- For some scientists, the growing variety of commercial data is enabling previously impossible research projects. But others fear that increasing reliance on private satellite observations could short-change science over time, by making data more costly or creating other barriers to access. “If you go the commercial way, you’re going to shrink the user base and you’re going to shrink the amount of knowledge you gain from it,” says Matthew Hansen, a geographer at the University of Maryland in College Park who uses some private data.
- Remote-sensing companies typically sell their data to the government and to businesses such as private weather forecasters and agricultural firms. They have tended to focus on collecting data in just a few wavelength bands, to provide sharper and more frequent images than government spacecraft can. But various trends — the falling costs of components, the development of small satellites such as CubeSats and improved engineering and manufacturing processes — have allowed firms to pursue more-complex technologies.
Figure 10: The commercial remote-sensing firm Satellogic captured this hyperspectral view of the countryside surrounding Buenos Aires (image credit: Satellogic)
- Several firms are looking to develop satellites equipped with radar, which can gather data at night and through cloud cover — situations in which instruments relying on visible light falter. ICEYE’s planned constellation of probes should be able to image a given location many times a day, whereas existing radar-equipped satellites, such as the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1, return to a given spot only every few days. Other companies with radar projects in development include XpressSAR of Arlington, Virginia, and Urthecast of Vancouver, Canada.
- Some firms are beginning to explore hyperspectral imaging, which spans a wide range of wavelengths, allowing the detection of specific chemicals. In 2016, Satellogic of Buenos Aires launched two 35 kg satellites equipped with custom-designed cameras and light filters. Last month, the company became the first commercial supplier of hyperspectral data. Satellogic’s goal is to fly about 300 satellites, together capable of imaging any location on Earth.
- And it has already begun to appeal to scientists. The company announced in January that it would give researchers free access to its 30-meter-resolution hyperspectral data. These span optical and near-infrared wavelengths and can help track water pollution and oil spills, and monitor the health of forests and crops. “We are receiving contacts from scientists all over the world,” says Satellogic chief executive Emiliano Kargieman.
- But most commercial data must be purchased, and some scientists say the cost can limit their usefulness. Unless companies commit to making data archives available to all who need such information, they will freeze out many cash-strapped junior researchers and people in developing countries, Hansen says. And commercial data simply aren’t good enough for many types of study, despite the technical advances. No commercial satellite matches the consistency and stability of the data collected by the US government’s Landsat probes, which have monitored Earth since 1972.
- Government-funded missions also remain unparalleled in enabling scientists to push frontiers in basic research that may not have immediate applications, says Lorraine Remer, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Remer is deputy project scientist for NASA’s planned PACE (Plankton, Aerosol,Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) satellite, and says that she does not know of any instrument aboard a commercial satellite that could produce hyperspectral data to rival those possible with the NASA mission. PACE’s ocean-color imager will enable researchers to identify specific types of aerosol particle in the air, and plankton types in the ocean.
- And governments typically provide the raw data that are used to create images, not just the images themselves, adds Andreas Kääb, a geoscientist at the University of Oslo, Norway, who uses satellite data to study glacier movement. With commercial providers, “once you ask for raw data, you quickly run into problems”, he says.
- But commercial data may become more enticing if government support for Earth monitoring recedes. In the United States, President Donald Trump has proposed axing three NASA missions in 2018 — including PACE — and scaling back a fourth.
- We’re looking at an unpredictable future for Earth-science funding in the US,” Kargieman says. “If we have a capability among the private sector to step in and provide the data that will allow scientists to continue to do research, I think we should do so.”
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).