Spaceflight to launch network for communicating with tiny satellites

The Planet Labs Flock 1 Dove satellites before launch. Photo courtesy of Planet Labs.

So, you built your shoebox-sized satellite. You found a spot on a rocket and got it to the International Space Station, where astronauts then released it into Earth’s orbit. Now you need to communicate with it. How?

The answer has been a headache for space startups, which, like any small company, don’t necessarily have the resources to build a huge amount of communications infrastructure from scratch. Some go ahead and do it. Others, like Southern Stars, find a partner with existing resources.

Spaceflight, which has been booking space for small satellites on rockets since early 2013, believes there is room for another option: a global network for communicating with satellites that anyone can buy time on, bringing down the cost for big and small satellite companies.

“Just as computers used to be mainframes and then it was the PC and now it’s tablets and smartphones with billions of different nodes on a network, that’s kind of the same paradigm in space,” Spaceflight president Curt Blake said in an interview. “The size of spacecraft has really fallen and the cost to make a spacecraft has fallen as well. Now is the time when a ground network at a lower cost makes sense.”

Blake said it currently costs a small satellite company $400 to $500 each time its satellite makes contact with a ground station. That may happen multiple times a day as it circles the globe and crosses over different stations. And the model for companies like Planet Labs and Spire (formerly known as Nanosatisfi) is to put dozens, and potentially hundreds, of satellites in space at a time. That adds up.

A Planet Labs dove satellite is released from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of Planet Labs.

Planet Labs Dove satellites are released from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of Planet Labs.

Spaceflight said its network will cost between $3,000 and $50,000 a month depending on the type of antenna used. Companies can also pay by the minute, with rates ranging from $1.95 to $19.95 per minute.

Spaceflight’s network will come online in early 2015, and the first station will be located in Washington. It will add more stations every year until 2017, at which point it will have locations on six continents.

In the meantime, the company will keep sending small satellites into space. It has coordinated the launch of 76 so far from companies like Planet Labs, Southern Stars and universities.

“I think you’ll see lots of different applications out there that are spawned. Having something up in space is great, but if you don’t have a ground network to communicate what you’re doing, it’s not worth anything,” Blake said. “Most of us are down here.”

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