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Planet Labs completes high-resolution Earth imaging constellation

20 Aug 2020

Final three Maxar-produced SkySat orbiters launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Earth observation services company Planet Labs has completed its constellation of small imaging satellites, with the launch this week of three more high-resolution craft.

Sent into orbit on board the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that also launched another 58 Starlink satellites, the three Maxar-built SkySat imagers bring the Planet Labs total to 21.

50 cm resolution
Capable of 50 cm image resolution from their orbiting altitude of 400 km, Planet Labs says that its SkySat constellation represents the world’s largest fleet of high-resolution imaging satellites.

In recent weeks the fleet of dishwasher-sized craft have produced detailed aerial views of the devastation following the giant chemical explosion in Beirut, and a major oil spill caused when the tanker MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef near the island of Mauritius.

The first of the SkySat imagers was launched back in November 2013, with San Francisco-based Planet Labs acquiring seven of the orbiters when it bought out Google’s Terra Bella business in February 2017.

That deal gave the company the ability to offer imagery with a resolution of 80 cm, although Planet Labs has since improved that figure to 50 cm by shifting the SkySat satellites into a slightly lower orbit.

Subsequent launches, including this week’s, mean that locations can be imaged several times every day - in some cases, as many as 12 times each day.

“This capability, combined with improved 50 cm imagery and a new ‘tasking dashboard’, will unlock unprecedented visibility into activities across the world and create a new paradigm for Earth observation,” wrote Planet Labs’ senior VP of product Martin van Ryswyk in a blog post earlier this summer.

WorldView Legion launch
Satellite maker Maxar Technologies has built most of the SkySat constellation for Planet Labs.

Next year, the Colorado-headquartered firm is scheduled to launch an initial fleet of six satellites for its new “WorldView Legion” Earth imaging constellation, promising a resolution of sub-30 cm, combined with three-dimensional modeling capability and up to 15 location revisits every day.

Unlike the SkySat platform, the new imaging constellation will be based on push-broom focal plane arrays, as these are much more cost-effective when it comes to imaging large areas each day.

Maxar says that advances in optics manufacturing have contributed to improvements in affordability, while telescope pointing accuracy has also been improved.

Built by Raytheon Intelligence & Space, each of the WorldView Legion imagers will collect high-resolution images equivalent to an area approximately the size of Texas every day.

“The image resolution possible with the new instrument will show a level of detail that was not possible before,” says Raytheon. “Users looking at an image of a parking lot will be able to distinguish between a sedan, an SUV, a motorcycle, or truck.”

AlluxaBerkeley Nucleonics CorporationLaCroix Precision OpticsHyperion OpticsMad City Labs, Inc.LASEROPTIK GmbHABTech
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