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Walk into a nondescript brick building near the intersection of 2nd and Bryant Streets in San Francisco, and you’ll notice right away that you’re not in the average startup office. Electronics parts litter nearly every exposed surface. Satellites the size of shoeboxes sit on shelves and tables. In a tiny room in the corner, TVs display the locations of similar satellites currently orbiting the Earth.
From this office, Planet Labs is building and running satellites called Doves, the first of which they launched this year as a test. Next year, they will send 28 into space. The Doves provide sharp images of the Earth down to the three to five meter scale — close enough that “you can count trees, but not see people,” according to co-founder Robbie Schingler. That preserves both privacy and detailed data collection.
In the process, they’re also hoping to show the world that the space industry is back. For years, budget cuts have frozen many of NASA’s goals for human space exploration. But in the meantime there has been an influx of commercial companies, such as SpaceX’s shuttles to the International Space Station. There are missions to Mars, plans to mine asteroids and private space stations all moving ahead without government funding.
“The space industry has been asleep for 30 years. I kind of feel like we’re just waking up right now. I’d love to see more people starting companies in this space or similar spaces, just saying space entrepreneurship is back,” co-founder Chris Boshuizen said. “I really want this company to not just show people what is changing about the world, but show them how they can help.”
Three scientists walk into a conference
Earth imaging has been around for some time, but Planet Labs’ images will be updated continuously and available to anyone for a fee, though they have yet to release pricing. Schingler said the images are ideal for detailed agriculture tracking, whether a farmer lives in Kenya or Iowa. But they also have environmental applications.
“The broader context is just monitoring the carbon economy,” co-founder Will Marshall said. “Before we can really help to fix the impact that we’re having on the environment, we have to be able to monitor them in a systematic way. The problem right now no one is monitoring the forest on a global scale.”
Schingler, Marshall and Boshiuzen always wanted to change the space industry. But they didn’t always know how they would do it. They met more than a decade ago at an international conference meant to connect young professionals over space policy.
They found themselves bonded to a worldwide community of scientists that they collaborated regularly with over the next decade. They wrote a paper for the European Union on space policy and voluntarily put together a report at a conference where no one was willing to collect their scattered findings into a cohesive document. Wherever there was room to step up and contribute, they did it. Collaborating across the world meant a lot of early and late phone calls, but as a result they could work on projects nearly around the clock by distributing work across different time zones.
“It was great exposure to all kind of inefficiencies and problems involved with organizations, working with people, building consensus with international teams and making big projects happen,” Boshuizen said. “We’re basically engineers and physicists who went on a 10-year journey through policy, economics, law, politics and bureaucracy and understood to a certain extent the problem of why space is struggling.”
Spinning a NASA career into a satellite company
All three of the founders spent time at NASA working on projects like low-cost spacecraft for exploration and a lunar orbiter. Boshuizen and Marshall worked on the PhoneSat project, which sent a mobile phone controlled satellite into space. Schingler helped found an incubator program that led to a flurry of new technologies across different NASA centers.
Their work with PhoneSats showed them you can do more and more with increasingly small equipment. They started thinking about possible applications and quickly honed in on Earth observation.
For the last eight years, they have lived in a house together. Their garage became a workshop where they tinkered with satellite technology on the weekends. The work became more serious and they began hiring on friends. Eventually, it got so big that they left NASA. They moved into the SoMa office in February of 2012.
“We started project because could create a sustainable, healthy business that would be helping the world in the process,” Marshall said. “We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to hone in on this opportunity. It was a perfect match of our skill sets and an opportunity to make a difference no one else is doing.”
Space is becoming a crowded place, and Planet Labs is not the only company racing to provide customized, space-sourced data to clients. But if governments and other large organizations get behind its goal of monitoring environmental change, their tiny satellites could be the start of a big change in the world.