With North Korea continuing to test intercontinental ballistic missiles and antagonise the West, the US government is turning to Silicon Valley in an attempt to gain better, and more current intelligence with regards to the movements of North Korean military assets. The first port of call will likely be organisations who already have satellites in space, such as Silicon Valley based business, “Planet,” however, the reception is unlikely to be a friendly one for the government. Planet exists as something of a protest by former NASA employees, who became frustrated at the United States government’s focus on weaponising space. The goal was to create a chain of satellites designed to partner with machine learning and create real-time findings for individuals and businesses around the world. Sounds like every other space focused company in the world, apart from two things –
1.Planet already has over 100 satellites in orbit
2.The satellites are cheap to make
The words, “satellite,” and, “cheap,” are not generally heard in the same sentence, but Planet is no ordinary company. Their goal wasn’t to put a few satellites in space and see what the view was like, but to create a chain of satellites, each contributing to a continuous view of the planet and sending consistent feedback to earth. To do this, the business had to build something unique – a budget focused, almost disposable satellite that wasn’t the size of a car.
The result was the Dove.
This tiny satellite weighs only 5 kg, and is designed to be distributed as part of a shared payload. Meaning, the satellites can be taken to space in a small rocket, and distributed as a group, rather than the laborious and expensive strategy of launching a rocket for every satellite.
Most recently, Planet launched 88 Doves from a single rocket in India, as part of the largest satellite distribution from a single rocket in history.
Interestingly, it’s not just size that makes the satellites cost-effective, it’s also what’s inside them. Usually, tailor-made parts and long manufacturing processes are part and parcel of satellite manufacture. These small satellites are made from parts accessible to anyone, and most can be purchased online.
But having a small and cheap satellite means sacrificing some things, and in this case it’s technology beyond taking pictures and sending them back. Dove satellites orbit the earth in a massive circle, and send pictures of the planet’s surface back to earth – and that’s it, there is no room for additional features or functions. In fact, while it is possible to zoom in on various parts of the planet, the picture quality is such that it wouldn’t – at this stage – be a viable replacement for military spy satellites. You can see trees, and buildings but beyond that everything is blurry.
However, the US government with its deep pockets will likely propose seductive terms to Planet and its contemporaries, and time will tell whether the organisations will stick to their philosophy of satellites focused on the betterment of the planet, or if reverting to weaponisation for commercial purposes will prove too lucrative.