To better connect with the Earth, these satellites will look up, not down

You’ve got to get up to get down.
You’ve got to get up to get down.
Image: Reuters/NASA/Tim Peake
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The race to get useful data from satellites into the hands of paying customers faces a number of obstacles—including fax machines.

Asking a satellite sensor to look at a specific spot on the globe can be a “20th-century process right now,” according to Payam Banazadeh, the CEO of Capella Space, a startup planning to launch and operate a network of radar satellites.

Today, Capella is announcing a partnership with an old-line satellite firm, Inmarsat, to launch a novel satellite-to-satellite communication service that Banazadeh says will greatly improve his customers’ experience.

Currently, an agricultural firm, a maritime shipper, or an investor seeking insight about something on Earth will contact a satellite firm to put in a request via email, phone, or, yes, even fax. Then that message has to get relayed to a spacecraft. Then the satellite needs to gather the imagery when it flies over the right location. Finally, it needs to transmit that imagery back to Earth, to be processed and distributed.

All that takes time, to the point where customers often get a good look at something that happened yesterday, but not much actionable intelligence. That gets at a challenge facing many new satellite companies: It’s comparatively easy to obtain imagery more cheaply than existing providers by using smaller satellites, but turning that data into a timely intelligence product is much harder.

With this new deal, Capella will be able to communicate with its satellites much more efficiently. Its spacecraft fly relatively close to the planet in order to capture better imagery, but that means they move very quickly. Instead of setting up enough ground stations so that there is always one in range of their spacecraft, Capella is taking the opposite approach with its Inmarsat partnership.

Inmarsat’s 13 spacecraft fly high above the Earth—about 37,000 km—where they orbit at the same speed as the planet’s rotation. This makes it seem as if they are hanging over one spot. Their high vantage point will allow them to see almost all of Capella’s spacecraft at the same time. By installing the right comms gear in the satellites it’s planning to launch (so far it has just one prototype in orbit), Capella will be able to relay its instructions from the ground to the high-flying Inmarsat birds and then back down to the Capella satellites in the middle.

Instead of waiting as many as eight hours for a satellite to fly over a ground station, the company hopes to have nearly real-time contact with its satellites. The US military has deployed a similar communications architecture, but Banazadeh believes this will be the first time private companies use this kind of satellite-to-satellite link. The communication terminals will be built by a company called Addvalue.

The deal follows another partnership recently set up by Capella with Amazon Web Services, which has begun colocating satellite ground terminals at its server facilities so that satellite data can be dumped into the cloud at faster speeds.

Banazadeh says his team is so far very happy with the radar imagery gathered from their prototype satellite (called Denali), but aren’t yet ready to share it with the public. While Capella has raised nearly $60 million so far from venture investors, it hasn’t announced any customers except for the US Defense Department, which is seeking more effective early-warning satellites to track nuclear missiles.

The startup’s next move is to launch its second satellite, called Sequoia, on an Indian PSLV rocket before year’s end, and a further six satellites sometime in 2020.