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Planetary Resources' Arkyd 6 satellite
An artist’s conception shows Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 6 prototype Earth-observing satellite, which is due for its maiden launch this year. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Small satellites, and the startups that make them, are becoming a big deal – and there’s a fresh flurry of industry reports that explain why.

The bottom line is that new types of satellite data can give earthbound businesses an edge.

For example, a hedge-fund manager can estimate how much revenue Walmart will report by counting the cars in the stores’ parking lots. Farmers can use custom-delivered, hyperspectral imaging to monitor how their crops are doing. Petroleum companies can get a quick alert on potential pipeline leaks.

Seattle-area companies like Planetary Resources and Spaceflight Industries are betting millions of dollars on the rapid growth of next-generation satellite services. And then there’s the rush to deliver internet services via satellite: That’s the focus of SpaceX’s Seattle office.

Will at least some of those bets pay off? There’s reason to think so. Here’s a sampling of assessments:

  • VentureBeat is publishing a report from the Skolkovo Foundation’s Valery Komissarov that mentions Planetary Resources and Spaceflight’s Black Sky Global venture, among others. He counts 13 startups that are involved in the Earth observation market. “We can expect to see a lot of these companies fail,” he says, but the ones who survive just might cash in on a sector that has the potential for exponential growth. “It’s not just mapping and visual observation — it’s quantitative analysis of the planet’s surface,” Komissarov quotes one business development director as saying.
  • The Wall Street Journal focuses on a Silicon Valley partnership between a satellite startup called Planet Labs and a data-mining company called Orbital Insight. Orbital offers predictions on future stock market movements to its clients, which include several hedge funds. The key to its market strategy lies in alternative data sources, such as commercial satellite imagery. New Mexico-based Descartes Labs is aiming to provide similar types of inside information for corn and soybean yields. (WSJ subscription required.)
  • Aviation Week & Space Technology is running a commentary from KPMG’s Jono Anderson that’s bullish on the prospects for direct satellite telecommunication. Anderson notes that Facebook, Google, Apple and Samsung are all making plans to link next-generation 5G wireless networks across terrestrial and space boundaries. They’re teaming up with companies including OneWeb and SpaceX to take advantage of the low-Earth-orbit satellite telecom constellations that are yet to come. “The tech giants’ desire to ensure that space is a big part of the 5G wireless ecosystem has the biggest potential in decades to disrupt traditional space,” Anderson writes. (Aviation Week registration required.)
  • The Space Review and Space News carry reports from Jeff Foust about last week’s Conference on Small Satellites, held in Logan, Utah. Attendance at the conference has grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s clear that the demand for small satellites is on an upswing. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell gave a shout-out to Seattle-based Spaceflight, which has been aggregating secondary satellite payloads for SpaceX as part of a rideshare agreement. “We’ve got a brand-new agreement with Spaceflight for four additional flights over the next four or five years,” Foust quoted Shotwell as saying.

The startups leading the small-satellite revolution tend to be headquartered in places such as Seattle and Silicon Valley rather than traditional space centers in Texas and Florida. And why is that? These reports suggest that victory in the small-satellite space race will be decided by software as well as hardware.

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