Key West from space (Source: Planet)

Planet Labs opens new satellite factory with big capacity, potential

This week Planet Labs announced it opened a new satellite manufacturing and testing factory in San Francisco.  The first batch of 16 Doves manufactured in the new facility are being shipped out to India for launch on an Indian PSLV rocket this fall.  But what is Planet planning with a complex “six times the size” of its previous lab?

Last year, 2017, Planet launched 147 satellites, with the vast majority of them Doves – small 3U imaging cubesats capable of providing 3 to 5 meter resolution of the Earth’s surface.  At any given point in time, Planet has around 160 or so Doves in orbit, imaging the entire surface of the planet every day.

The new 27,000 plus square foot complex puts all of Planet’s spacecraft design and production, from R&D to manufacturing and testing, under one roof.  Planet will be able to iterate hardware and capabilities faster.  Testing will be done in-house with a multi-purpose environmental facility capable of simulating space environments and testing the readiness of hardware for flight.

More interesting, Planet says the additional space and a flexible floor plan allows for simultaneous production of multiple spacecraft lines.  The company blog post says Planet can now build upwards of 40 Doves per week “concurrent with other spacecraft designs,” twice the build capacity of its previous manufacturing site.

Consider for a moment if Planet builds 40 Doves per week, it could build an entire replacement set of the existing 160 Dove satellites in about a month – plus have room and resources for the “simultaneous production” of those other spacecraft designs. That’s a lot of in-house capacity.

One obvious area where Planet might be cranking up production is in larger satellites along the SkySat line and capabilities. The current constellation of around 15 SkySats were built by SSL/Loral and are capable of providing sub-meter imaging and high-definition video.  A SkySat weighs in at about 120 kilograms or so and is roughly the side of a dorm fridge (60 x 60 x 95 cm). 

Before being acquired by Planet through Google, SkyBox Imaging planned to build a fleet of 24 or more satellites to provide rapid, high-resolution imagery.  If Planet can build and launch more high-res imaging satellites, it can disrupt others planning to jump into the market with large constellations delivering rapid revisits with resolution of 1 meter or less.

Planet could also expand beyond visible light imaging into other sensors. Some have suggested Planet has looked at radar satellites, an obvious complement to its collection methods and data catalog.  IR and multispectral satellites might also fit into a wider portfolio.

Another option for Planet is to produce satellites for sale to others, such as commercial ventures and the U.S. government.  Spire Global has discussed its plans to produce cubesats for others, leveraging its in-house production capacity, so its not a stretch to see Planet do the same.


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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