How NASA turned a Smartphone into a Satellite Business

Planet Labs aims to take a high-res images of nearly the entire globe every 24 hours.
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On September 2013, a NASA team originally led by Boshuizen and Marshall successfully launched its first PhoneSats into low-Earth orbit at a cost of just $7,000 each.

On September 2013, a NASA team originally led by Boshuizen and Marshall successfully launched its first PhoneSats into low-Earth orbit at a cost of just $7,000 each.

Satellites aren’t small or cheap. The Solar Dynamics Observatory launched by NASA in 2010 weighs about 6,800 pounds and cost $850 million to build and put into orbit.

Even the satellites built under NASA’s Discovery Program, aimed at encouraging development of low-cost spacecraft, still have price tags beyond the reach of smaller companies. But that’s beginning to change as increasingly powerful technology comes in increasingly smaller packages, thanks to Pete Klupar.

In February 2014, Planet Labs Inc. launched its first flock of Dove nanosatellites into space. Shown are two shoebox-sized Doves being ejected into low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station. The company’s goal is for the flock to take a high-resolution snapshot of nearly the entire globe every 24 hours.

In February 2014, Planet Labs Inc. launched its first flock of Dove nanosatellites into space. Shown are two shoebox-sized Doves being ejected into low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station. The company’s goal is for the flock to take a high-resolution snapshot of nearly the entire globe every 24 hours.

Klupar, director of engineering at Ames Research Center, was fond of pulling a government-issued smartphone out of his pocket during speeches and wondering aloud why the phone, which had a faster processor and better sensors than many satellites, cost so little in comparison — after which he slipped the phone back in his pocket and carried on.

An Ames researcher named Chris Boshuizen took Klupar’s musings to heart. Having seen the phone schtick before, Boshuizen and his colleague Will Marshall once interjected during a talk by Klupar when he began to muse aloud about satellite costs. “We said, ‘Pete, don’t put that back in your pocket,’” Boshuizen recalls. “‘We’re going to make that into a satellite.’”

By September 2013, a NASA team originally led by Boshuizen and Marshall successfully launched its first PhoneSats into low-Earth orbit at a cost of just $7,000 each. Named Alexander, Graham and Bell, the three mini-orbiters took pictures from space and beamed the data back to Earth, demonstrating for the first time that a consumer-grade smartphone could be used to power a satellite in space, the Space agency said on its blog.

Planet Labs’ Dove nanosatellites captured this image of the Sabina wildfire in Riverside County, California, on July 23, 2014, just 10 minutes after it was reported. The photo reveals the fire’s size, the path it had burned, the wind direction, and its exact location.

Planet Labs’ Dove nanosatellites captured this image of the Sabina wildfire in Riverside County, California, on July 23, 2014, just 10 minutes after it was reported. The photo reveals the fire’s size, the path it had burned, the wind direction, and its exact location.

Meanwhile, Boshuizen and Marshall were joined by another Ames research scientist Robbie Schingler, to form Planet Labs Inc., a company focused on using cheap, off-the-shelf commercial components to build ever-smaller satellites. 

By February 2014, the company dispatched the first of its commercial “flock,” when 28 Doves were released from the International Space Station (ISS). These were followed by further deployments that brought the fleet’s total to more than 130 satellites — enough to produce high-resolution imagery of nearly the entire globe on a daily basis. 

The private sector is eager for such real-time information, NASA said. Insurance companies can use the images to verify damages claimed by homeowners and progress on repairs, while commodity trackers can track agricultural crops to forecast yields. The oil and gas industry can monitor pipelines for safety, while mobile-phone companies can use the satellite imagery for improved map applications on smartphones, the agency noted.