Canon launching imaging satellites, discusses 100+ satellite constellation

Early next year, Rocket Labs will put a pair of Canon imaging satellites into orbit. One will be the company’s first mass production satellite, while the second will carry a pair of cameras with different resolutions into orbit.  Canon Electronics already has one satellite into orbit and plans to operate a constellation of 100 satellites in the future, if it sticks to plans announced in 2017.

Two years ago, Canon launched CE-SAT-1 (Canon Electric Satellite I) into orbit onboard an Indian PSLV launch as a testbed/pathfinder.  The CE-SAT-1 satellite weighs between 50 to 65 kilograms, and is 50 cm x 50 cm x 70 cm. It uses a 40 cm diameter telescope and an image detector based on the Canon EOS 5D mk. 3 camera, with the imaging system providing 1 meter resolution at an orbit of 600 kilometer.

About 60 percent of the parts onboard the first CE-SAT-1 were made in-house by Canon,  with the company planning to increase content in the future.   Press reports in 2017 indicate Canon plans to sell both components and integrated satellites, similar to its strategy in the laser printer market.  Given the company’s background in producing high-quality, mass market electronics components and optics in the digital camera field, Canon is likely to be a key player if it can provide attractive pricing.

CE-SAT-1 Mark 2, scheduled for launch in early 2019 through Spaceflight Industries, is Canon’s first mass production model satellite and presumably has a higher percentage of in-house components.  Also onboard the Rocket Labs flight will be CE-SAT-II, a second satellite carrying two cameras with different resolutions.

Canon Electronics executives have expressed a plan to put up to 100 small satellites into orbit per year, photographing the entire surface of the global, analyzing the imagery, and selling the results as value-added data.  Image mining is becoming an increasingly crowded field, with New Space startups such as Planet, Spaceflight Industry’s own BlackSky division, and Earth-i competing with established firms such as Digital Globe.

Few details are available on how Canon plans to provide access to its imagery, but if it follows the roadmap of New Space startups, the company will likely have a central web portal with data and analytical access available through APIs, with SDKs available for developers to build new applications.  The sky seems to be the (proverbial) limit for image data if the price is right, but customers don’t have infinitely deep pockets.  For national security purposes, the government of Japan would be a promising customer.

Canon may also competition in satellite components and finished satellites from others in Asia.  Samsung expressed interest in launching a network of 4,600 low flying satellites to provide broadband access to the globe as far back as 2015, but there has been no public comment or news since then.  The global conglomerate has key strengths in electronics and manufactured goods it could leverage to build small satellites if it chose to do so.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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