Lots (and Lots) of Satellite Launches

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Lots (and Lots) of Satellite Launches

Entrepreneurs are building and preparing to launch thousands of low-cost, high-value satellites in the next year.

Entrepreneurs are building and preparing to launch thousands of low-cost, high-value satellites in the next year.

These satellite constellations are small, capable of communicating with each other, and they continue to work even when one satellite in the network goes down. They’re referred to as microstats or cubesats, and they can be used for a variety of purposes, including taking photos and beaming internet access back down to Earth.

Fleets of cubesats now take photos of farmland and beam them back down to earth to help farmers assess their crops. Image analysis software can find patterns in satellite images and tell big box retailers, such as Walmart, how many cars are parked in their lots and can look for trends over time. They can then do the same with a competitor’s parking lots to gather strategic intelligence.

Mining companies can survey a swath of land to see who’s started drilling and whether they’ve struck oil. Satellites monitor traffic, polar ice caps, and even individual humans. Near-real time images captured from space, coupled with machine learning and analysis tools, is big business. Governments, big agricultural corporations, intelligence agencies, shipping companies, and logistics firms all want access, and they’re willing to pay tens of millions of dollars a year for it.

The combined valuation of companies such as Planet, Airbus D&S, MDA and DigitalGlobe is well into the tens of billions. In early 2020, the Starlink constellation, a project from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, began sending clusters of 60 satellites into orbit every few weeks. By the middle of the year, there could be a fleet of 12,000 overhead.

Amazon is planning a constellation of 3,200 microsats, while U.K.-based OneWeb is launching up to 700. And that’s just a few examples—it would have taken us several pages to list every company planning to launch spacecraft over the next five years.