Satellite Pics for Cheap!!

Issue 05-15-17   |   Reviewer:   Michael S. Raisinghani, Ph.D.


A young company in Palo Alto called Capella Space, which announced $12 million in new funding on May 9, has figured out a way to create much smaller, cheaper versions of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. 

A typical satellite can be the size of a bus, weigh 2,500 pounds, and cost as much as $500 million. Capella Space says its network of satellites will be able to roughly match the image quality of Pentagon-grade $500 million models. The key to the SAR technology that separates it from high-powered optical telescopes is that the beams can pass through clouds and work at night. They make the invisible visible.

A satellite with SAR onboard can send radar beams from space that bounce off Earth and then return to a sensor, which assembles the information to produce an immaculate image. Each Capella satellite is about the size of a beach ball, weighs almost 100 pounds, and can produce black-and-white images at 1-meter resolution, about what you'd get with the military models. It uses cheap, powerful consumer electronics, artificial intelligence algorithms, and modern control software to get a constellation of satellites working as a unit.

This would allow hedge funds, farmers, city planners, and others who would buy the pictures to track changes in the world around them. To succeed, Capella will need to outflank companies such as Airbus SE and Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates Ltd. and find a large market for its images.

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