Google Skybox Satellite Purchase Myths and Realities

By Doug Mohney June 13, 2014

Earlier this week, Google bought Skybox Imaging in a $500 million private transaction.  Skybox brings rich capabilities to the data-focused Google, including a wealth of future upside business revenue.  But there's a lot of ill-informed crazy talk as to what Skybox will and won't mean.  I've been following Skybox and its cousin Planet Labs for a while, so I'd clear up the myths.

Skybox Imaging has built a company around high-resolution satellite imaging, HD video from orbit, and "Big Data" analytics services to dig meaningful results out of all the imaging it plans to take and archive.   The key to Skybox is information, specifically imaging and being able to process it.  Customers can get good imagery today, but want the ability to measure changes over time.   Skybox has built the systems and tools to catalog a flood of imagery from the constellation of satellites it will put into orbit, then be able to compare those images.

A Skybox satellite is about the size of a dorm fridge and takes pictures with a resolution around one meter or less, as well as capture a 90 second video clip at 30 frames per second.  Exactly how much less is an interesting question.  The first two satellites were built without propulsion, but the next 13 will have the ability to raise and lower the orbit of the satellite.  Lowering the orbit means resolution can go up for a commercial or government customer willing to pay for the additional detail.

The company's first satellite, SkySat-1, was launched out of Russia in November 2013.   SkySat-2 is expected to go up this month on another Russian launch.   After hand-building the first two satellites, the company has contracted with Space Systems/Loral to build 13 more satellites on an assembly line.  Orbital Sciences Corporation -- soon to be Orbital-ATK -- will launch six satellites into orbit on a Minotaur-C rocket, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California.

Skybox (now Google) has discussed plans to put up to 24 satellites into orbit.  The imagery collected will enable Google to keep Google Maps up to date and accurate.  Conspiracy minded people believe Google will have its own private spy satellite network, able to peer into the backyard of anyone, at any time. Or it will funnel imaging data directly to the U.S. government.

At one meter resolution, you can make out cars clearly.  People, not so much. If you have a tank or a jet parked in your backyard, you're going to be 'outed,' assuming you haven't parked it inside, pulled a net over it, and it is a clear day.  Skybox's satellites are designed for visual imaging, so they can't see through trees, fog, clouds, or at night without other sources of light.

Skybox is a commercial outfit.  If the U.S. government wanted to buy its products, so be it.  And there's also a regulatory issue involved when it comes to imaging satellites.   NOAA -- yes, the agency that monitors the oceans and atmosphere -- is in charge of issuing licensing for privately-operated remote sensing systems.

The U.S. already has a long-term contract with Colorado-based DigitalGlobe for imagery, as well as its own set of imaging and radar "national assets" -- spy satellites, if you will -- capable of providing high-resolution images in the tens of centimeters or less.   Exactly how good is up to speculation. 

Until this week, the limit on U.S. commercial satellite imagery was for a resolution of 50 centimeters.  The Department of Commerce now will allow U.S. companies to sell imagery of up to 25 centimeters to be publicly sold, due to increased competition from foreign firms.

Google also had a line in its press release saying that "we also hope Skybox's team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief.”  Disaster relief is the easy problem, since a constellation of Skybox satellites could take high resolution pictures of troubled areas within hours.

Internet access is another story. Skybox has focused on imaging, not communications.  Google reportedly has a stake investment in WorldVue, a company planning to put anywhere from 180 to 360 satellites into low Earth orbit for providing low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband access to underserved/unserved regions of the planet.  Skybox could provide guidance on how to setup a production line for mass producing satellites, but there's no direct view.

However, Google could be a buyer in bulk of satellite launch services, especially if it later purchased WorldVu outright.  Or if you wanted to get really crazy, Google could buy Orbital-ATK and simply own its own launch services down the road.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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