Key West from space (Source: Planet)

Planet beefs adds colors, increases resolution for Earth Observation, gets NRO win

At its Explore Conference today, Planet announced new products and satellite improvements. New Dove satellites will capture images in up to 8 spectral bands (colors) and the company plans to lower the orbit of one or more of its high-resolution SkySat satellites to increase image resolution from around 72 centimeters to 50 centimeters.

Currently, Planet offers four spectral bands, with latest generation “SuperDove” satellites collecting up to 8 bands using new sensors capable of collecting sharper and more vibrant colors. Multispectral imagery provides more information on everything from crop health to pollution. The majority of Planet’s fleet are Dove satellites collecting 3 to 5 meter imagery of the entire Earth every day, providing a deep database of information to monitor changes over time of specific places, regions, and areas. Planet says 5-band and 8-band imagery will be available in early 2020.

Planet will use a combination of lowering a SkySat satellite’s orbit and improving image processing to delivery 50 centimeter resolution images to its customers. The company didn’t say what affect a lower orbit will have on the useful lifespan of the SkySat, which will use more onboard fuel to stay in orbit relative to its higher-flying siblings. SS/Loral built 13 SkySats with green propulsion systems that were launched between 2016 and 2018. Roughly the size of a dorm fridge, the expected lifetime of the SS/Loral satellites was to be for a minimum of 5 to 7 years with replacement satellites launched with updated technology.

It isn’t clear if Planet plans to “sweat the asset” of its current fleet if the orbital lifetime proves to be greater than expected or if there’s a SkySat 2.0 design on the drawing board with the latest technology advances rolled in.

Higher-resolution SkySat operations may be driven in part by customer needs, most specifically by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Planet’s commercial imagery subscription has been transferred from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to the NRO, with the NRO awarding Planet an unclassified multi-year subscription service contract for daily, large area 3-5 meter resolution commercial imagery collection – basically, NRO is buying access to Planet’s entire daily collection of Dove imagery.

NRO can pump the Dove imagery into its own analytical tools, providing wide area coverage and the ability to “tip” off movement in areas of interest, enabling the agency to “cue” its’ more exquisite assets – billion dollar satellites possibly capable of 10 centimeter resolution – onto a hotspot for closer examination. The unclassified imagery can also be more easily distributed to military planners, warfighters, and the national security community without the security and scheduling headaches around more expensive assets.

Planet also announced a bunch of product and process tweaks designed to streamline how customers download and access imagery, faster capabilities for delivering high-resolution SkySat imagery, a new Tasking API and Tasking Dashboard, a new add-on for Isri and an integration with the QGIS open-source GIS platform to be released by the end of the year.

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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