Astro Digital launched its first imaging satellites

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The global imaging and analysis company, Astro Digital, has sent its first imaging satellites into space early this morning as part of larger payload launched by the Russian company Glavkosmos.

The two satellites from Astro Digital join 70 other satellites transported on a Soyuz rocket launched from a site in Kazakhstan by the subsidiary of Russia’s state space agency Roscosmos.

With the launch, Astro Digital will begin to demonstrate the full system it had hoped to build since it was founded three years ago, according to a blog post from co-founder and head of product Bronwyn Agrios.

it’s a shot across the bow of the roughly 15 competing satellite imaging companies vying for a piece of the global imaging market.

While Astro Digital is starting small, the satellite imaging business has massive implications for any number of industries. The business relates to mapping, autonomous driving and so many other services that rely on location, both for consumers and businesses and for governments as well.

There is a race on to be able to create and update imaging of this kind, and while some larger groups are hoping to hold the keys, the fact that there are still also a sizable number of startups trying, points to how competitive the field.

And satellites are a tricky business. Alphabet basically ceded its position in the market when it sold Terra Bella to Planet earlier this year. Coupled with the disintegration of the proposed merger of OneWeb and Intelsat, there’s mounting evidence that crossing the finish line with a viable business in the space race isn’t easy.

Astro Digital can now provide imaging, downlink, processing, analysis and distribution in a unified system, with each image covering roughly 30,000 square kilometers, or an area half the size of Austria.

In a few months, Agrios said, the satellites will be able to cover areas of the U.S., Canada, and Russia.

The goal for the company is to get to global, daily imaging by the first quarter of 2018.

Since it raised $16 million in funding earlier this year from investors including Vast Ventures, undisclosed family offices and angel investors, Astro Digital has been hard at work getting the different pieces of its imaging and analysis platform for monitoring the earth up and running.

In February, the company announced on its Medium page that it had put up the datasets it had generated from information collected from NASA’s MODIS satellite onto Amazon Web Services. The data repository was a signpost of the types of analytical work that Astro Digital’s software can do (the company’s satellites already can be used to collect data used by forestry services to provide early information on potential forest fires).

Then, in June, the company sent employees off to the Arctic to commission its ground station antenna and simulate the conditions under which the ground station would receive data from its first two Landmapper satellites.

Photo courtesy Astro Digital.

As Astro Digital enters the crowded market for satellite imaging, the company is touting its system which it says is “specifically designed for large scale change monitoring”.

Everything from the size of the company’s satellite, its optics system, power sources, and orbit, to its downlink technology has been designed to provide a more thorough picture of the earth from space, the company claims.

Here’s how the company describes its downlink technology:

10TB of data per day coming down from space at a rate of 1 Gigabit per second. We are pushing the limits of data downlink capacity and need a ground station partner that can capture the data at the velocity that we downlink and at a cost that works for us as a small business.

Our partnership with Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) enables us to run lean and fast.

Where small satellites typically operate in the increasingly congested X-band spectrum, we operate in the Ka-band spectrum. Ka is the best way to downlink the volumes of data that we capture in space with just one ground antenna. We are the first commercial small sat company to operate in the Ka-spectrum which means that the ground station infrastructure didn’t exist.

We partnered with KSAT to build the ground infrastructure up in Svalbard, Norway that operates on the Ka-spectrum. We lease the antenna which means we didn’t need the up front capital to setup and own the infrastructure. We designed on a business model that works more like a subscription so that can downlink our massive data load at an optimal cost.

The company’s claims are one thing, but the reality is that there are a slew of companies out in the market (some with much stronger balance sheets) that are competing for a share of the roughly $260 billion spent on global satellites.

CBInsights tracks at last 15 satellite operators vying for the lion’s share of the earth imaging business.

Iceye Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Axelspace Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Astro Digital Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
GeoOptics Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Hera Systems Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Kacific Broadband Satellites Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Kepler Communications Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Planet Labs Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
PlanetIQ Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Satellogic Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
SpaceBelt Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Spire Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Fleet Space Technologies Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
Magnitude Space Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation
OneWeb Orbit Satellite Constellation Operation

With the satellite launch earlier today (at about 1:36 AM Eastern) Astro Digital has sent its first shot across the bow at these competitors.

The new satellites will join their celestial counterparts at a position 600 kilometers above the earth in a synchronous orbit. The company expects the satellites to be aloft for a bit more than 5 years.

Featured Image: NASA Johnson/Flickr