News & Events

February 28th, 2014

Building the World's Most Capable Microsatellites, Part 1

By Jonny Dyer, Chief Engineer

SkySat-1 is arguably the highest performance micro-satellite ever built. Since its launch 3 months ago, it has delivered terabytes of spectacular sub-meter imagery and video - data of incredible business value - at a cost more than an order of magnitude less than comparable existing systems.

We are regularly asked how this is possible and it boils down to two pieces:

  • A small, tightly integrated team of incredible hardware and software engineers with diverse industry experience
  • A unique space system design approach and philosophy

                                                        Feb. 18 in Kiev - History seen from the sky

This is the first post in a three part series detailing the value proposition of our small spacecraft platform, the design philosophy and team that enabled it and why it is uniquely enabling for business intelligence applications.

Small is the new Big

The Skybox vision is to leverage timely satellite data to provide insight into daily global activity. Such data has wide value in industries such as agriculture, asset monitoring, security, supply chain management and many more.

Since most businesses are interested in economic activity of some kind, the most valuable data is that which can monitor at the economic scale (under 1m) and temporal scales (daily). Existing Earth Observation (EO) systems have not met the need of many business applications because they lack the critical combination of timeliness and sub-meter resolution:



                                                               Satellite Performance Frontier                                                                                                                             

The cost of satellite data

Space assets are traditionally:

  • Extremely Valuable
  • Extremely Expensive
  • Extremely Risky 

They are valuable ( and probably always will be) because satellites are unique in type, quantity and global nature of data and services they can provide.They are expensive and risky because getting to space and doing interesting things there is hard.



                                                    Alphasat - a lot of eggs (and capital!!) in one basket

“Small-Sats” (micro-, nano-, pico-satelites, etc) are a reaction to the enormous expense of traditional aerospace. Because launch costs are a significant fraction of a satellite deployment cost, simply making satellites smaller is a first step in breaking the inflationary cost cycle.

But smaller alone does not a revolution make. To truly “move off the curve”, small satellites must also pack huge capability into tight mass, power and cost constraints.



                                                                          Small is the new Big


Today’s traditional, large spacecraft CAN capture data at the high resolution needed to monitor global human activity but because of their enormous capital cost (and, hence, limited numbers), they produce data too infrequently to enable many monitoring or change detection applications.

Today’s micro- and nano-sats can be launched in quantity because of their lower cost but can’t produce data with high enough resolution to monitor economic-scale change (cars in parking lots, ships in ports, supply chain monitoring, …).

To move off the frontier, a system must both capture data of high enough quality (resolution) to show economic activity and be cost-effective enough to deploy in large numbers (timeliness).

So why Small-Sats again?


                                                                          Bubble of opportunity

The commercial micro-electronics revolution and Moore’s law have pushed the green line up disproportionality at the smaller end of the spacecraft scale while economics of launch, capital financing and risk aversion in aerospace have pushed the cost up sharply at the larger end. Over the last 20 years, a “bubble of opportunity” has arisen in the nano- and micro-satellite scales.
So we ended up asking ourselves the question “What’s the smallest box I can fit something of real commercial value into?”. We spent the first 3 months of the design of SkySat-1 trying to answer this question, carefully balancing the state of the art and the realities of physics.

The answer came by combining tightly integrated system architecture, modularity in both hardware and software, techniques that allow us to leverage the incredible performance of modern commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components in space and the best engineering team in the industry.


                                                                         SkySat-1 "Off the Curve"

Stay tuned to Part II where we will discuss our unique design philosophy and how it enables the Skybox space and data platform. In Part III we will show how we applied these principles to the design of SkySat-1, elaborate on the way we balanced capability vs. size, and why we think the SkySat platform is right in the sweet-spot.