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Fast & High Resolution: What's Not to Like About SkySat-1?

Peg Shippert

If you haven't yet checked out the new examples of space-based HD Video from SkySat-1, you may want to scoot over to Skybox Imaging's SkySat-1 Gallery and check them out. I have to admit that they sort of blew my mind. Not that there is anything unbelievable, these days, about space-based video. It's just that after all of these years as a remote sensing specialist, I've come to expect my satellite data to stay still.

While the new SkySat-1 HD video examples may be flashy and new, perhaps the more important news from Skybox is their long term vision for providing more conventional,stationary, sub-meter imagery. As some of us know all too well, acquiring affordable, timely, high-resolution imagery of a specific place on the Earth can be challenging. That is, in part, because there are only a handful of commercial orbiting imaging sensors, and the availability of their imagery is strongly affected by the US government's priority over other buyers. SkySat-1, launched on November 21, 2013, is the first of a fleet of inexpensive, sub-meter resolution imaging sensors that Skybox Imaging plans to deploy. SkySat-2 is scheduled to launch later this year, with the eventual goal being 24 SkySats. After reaching that goal, Skybox Imaging expects to be able to provide nearly real-time images of most places on the Earth for a cost much less that we've seen from other imagery providers.

Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as seen by SkySat-1

 Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as seen by SkySat-1 on December 7, 2013. Image courtesy of Skybox Imaging.

The SkySat fleet will cost dramatically less to build and maintain than previous high-resolution sensors, because the platform design is inspired by the CubeSat concept. A CubeSat is a small (10 x 10 x 10 cm) satellite platform built using a standard design based on cheap components. The small size and standardization of CubeSats means that they can all be launched by a common deployment system. Most CubeSats are developed and launched by aerospace engineering student. It was in this context, as grad students at Stanford, that the founders of Skybox Imaging met. “We looked around at our friends and realized that we knew this unique group of people who had experience building capable satellites at a fundamentally different price point,”  Dan Berkenstock, the executive VP and Chief Product Officer of Skybox Imaging reported to Wired last June.

Skybox Imaging's platforms aren't exactly CubeSats. They're somewhat bigger and heavier, so they can accommodate enough hardware to capture images comparable in quality to existing commercial images. And it's not the technology that makes what Skybox Imaging is trying to do newsworthy anyway.It's their business concept. The idea is to not only provide affordable satellite imagery, but to do it in a way that can reveal daily global activity. Skybox Imaging sees providing high resolution satellite data of the earth taken just hours or days ago as "The world's largest data science problem."

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