When Doves Fly: Swarm Of Tiny Satellites Shot From Space Station

Astronauts fired up the International Space Station’s Yard-a-Pult (actually, we mean the Japanese Kibo arm’s satellite launcher) this week to send out a flock of Doves or tiny satellites that take pictures of the Earth below. An incredible 28 satellites from Planet Labs of San Francisco are expected to swarm into orbit — the largest fleet yet, NASA says — but there have been delays in launching some of them.

The aim? To provide Earth observation information for any purpose that is needed, whether it’s disaster relief or looking to learn more about the Earth’s environment. Planet Labs and NASA say that commercial applications could include real estate, mapping, construction and oil and gas monitoring.

Deployments of two satellites each began on Tuesday and Wednesday, but NASA noted there are “glitches” (which the agency didn’t specify) that are holding up the launch of other ones. There’s no estimated date yet for sending out the rest of the satellites.

“We believe that the democratization of information about a changing planet is the mission that we are focused on, and that, in and of itself, is going to be quite valuable for the planet,” stated Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs.

The Japanese Kibo robotic arm on the International Space Station deploys CubeSats during February 2014. The arm was holding a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer to send out the small satellites during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA

Flock 1 is a customer of the NanoRacks CubeSats program. CubeSats are small satellites that heavily rely on computer miniaturization to do the job of Earth observation and telecommunication that previously was the province of much larger and more expensive satellites. NanoRacks provides space both inside and outside the station for research experiments.

Expedition 38’s Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata both commented on the unusual launches. “Two small satellites are deployed from our launcher here on the space station. Each a little bigger than loaf of bread,” Mastracchio tweeted, while Wakata wrote, “Congratulations on the successful deploy of the satellites by the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer and Kibo robotics!”

For more information on Flock 1, check out the Planet Labs website. You can also check out an animation of how NanoRacks CubeSats deploy in the animation below (which includes a clip from the song “We Are Young” by Fun.)

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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