No one had ever lost 26 satellites at once until a launch failure bit Planet Labs last year, temporarily setting back the San Francisco startup’s ambition to map the globe every day.
Adding to the sting of last year’s Antares rocket crash in Virginia, Planet Labs lost another eight spacecraft aboard a failed launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster in June.
They were mass-casualty events, at least for the little robots Planet Labs is constructing and deploying around the planet to survey every part of Earth with unparalleled regularity.
With a fresh batch of shoebox-sized craft now safely aboard the International Space Station after launching Aug. 19 inside Japan’s HTV cargo craft, Planet Labs is ready to take a big step in recovering from losing two cadres of Earth observing satellites in the last year.
A display commemorating last October’s explosive Antares accident — complete with a haunting image of the Antares rocket immersed in a fireball — hangs in the lobby of Planet Labs headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Wreckage of the Planet Labs birds scoured from the Wallops Island beach near the Antares launch pad sits on a rack in a corner of the company’s workshop.
The group of 14 satellites launched by the HTV puts Planet Labs over the century mark. The successful delivery makes it 101 Planet Labs satellites successfully placed into orbit — some have already re-entered — and the latest group will be ejected this fall from pods mounted to the space station’s Japanese robotic arm.
Planet Labs’ satellites, called Doves by company insiders, go through design overhauls every few months. The craft are based on the CubeSat form factor, and engineers have figured out how to pack powerful new technologies inside the CubeSat’s compact dimensions.
With high-speed data links to beam back images to a network of ground stations around the globe, the satellites are now on their 12th generation. The newest set of Doves awaiting deployment from the International Space Station’s Japanese airlock carry upgraded cameras to snap sharper, more colorful photos of Earth.