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The Antares rocket that launched today to journey to the International Space Station contained 2,780 pounds of cargo, including food, spare parts and even a colony of ants for a science experiment. It also held the future of Earth imaging: 28 “Dove” satellites the size of shoe boxes that will help San Francisco startup Planet Labs. build a constantly-updating view of our world.
The “flock,” as Planet Labs calls it, is the largest group of satellites ever deployed. They will send back images of the Earth down to the three to five meter scale, which is close enough to “count trees, but not see people,” co-founder Robbie Schingler told me in July. The images can be bought for a fee to track things like agricultural yield, a cargo ship’s progress across the ocean or even how much deforestation occurs in a country each year.
The satellites will sit on the ISS for the month of January before being deployed. They are expected to begin sending images to Planet Labs headquarters as early as February. They are funded in part by the $52 million in Series B funding the company received last month.
The Antares rocket is operated by Orbital Sciences Corp., one of two private space companies NASA has tasked with carrying supplies to the ISS. This is the first of eight cargo missions that will carry on through 2016. The rocket that launched today is expected to dock at the ISS Sunday.