Antares Rocket Failure Pushes Tiny Satellite Company To Hitch Ride With SpaceX

The various companies that had stuff sitting on the failed Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launch last month are busy looking for alternatives. One example is Planet Labs, which is best known for deploying dozens of tiny satellites from the International Space Station this year.

The company lost 26 satellites in the explosion. But within nine days of the Oct. 28 event, Planet Labs had a partial backup plan — send two replacements last-minute on an upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

In what Planet Labs’ Robbie Schingler calls “the future of aerospace”, almost immediately after the explosion Planet Labs began working with NanoRacks, which launches its satellites from the space station, to find a replacement flight. Half of Planet Labs’ employees began building satellites, while the other half began working through the regulations and logistics. They managed to squeeze two satellites last-minute on to the next SpaceX manifest, which is scheduled to launch in December.

“In space, each element is very difficult to get right by itself, and it takes an ecosystem to deliver a capability this quickly,” wrote Schingler, a president and co-founder of the company, in a blog post last week.

NanoRacks CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station in February 2014, during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA
NanoRacks CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station in February 2014, during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA

“Central to making this possible was developing our own custom design of the satellite that is free from specialty suppliers (thus decreasing lead time) and having a spacecraft design optimized for manufacturing and automated testing. Moreover, we certainly couldn’t have done it without the collaboration from NanoRacks and support from NASA, and we thank them for their support. This is a great example for how to create a resilient aerospace ecosystem.”

There’s no word on how they will replace the other satellites, nor how this will affect Planet Labs’ vision (explained in this March TED talk) to have these small sentinels frequently circling Earth to provide near-realtime information on what is happening with our planet. But the company acknowledged that space is hard and satellites do get lost from time to time.

The company has been testing hardware in space, Silicon Valley-style, and starting to sign partnerships with various entities who want access to the imagery. Check out some of the free stuff below.

Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Water from reservoirs developed on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the past 25 years enabled the expansion of cropland in the region, including these circular fields in the ?anliurfa Province of southeastern Turkey." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Water from reservoirs developed on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the past 25 years enabled the expansion of cropland in the region, including these circular fields in the ?anliurfa Province of southeastern Turkey.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Forty percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The North Antelope Rochelle Mine, pictured here, is both the largest in the basin, and the largest in the United States." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Forty percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The North Antelope Rochelle Mine, pictured here, is both the largest in the basin, and the largest in the United States.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "The deep valleys and sharp ridges of the Nan Shan range in central China are highlighted in this early-morning satellite image." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “The deep valleys and sharp ridges of the Nan Shan range in central China are highlighted in this early-morning satellite image.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Vivid red maples stand out against the dark green evergreen forest and brown scrub landscape of the Pleasantview Hills." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Vivid red maples stand out against the dark green evergreen forest and brown scrub landscape of the Pleasantview Hills.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Filled in 1967, Lake Diefenbaker is a 140-mile-long reservoir along the South Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers. Diefenbaker is renowned for harboring extremely large fish: the world record rainbow trout (48 pounds) and burbot (25 pounds) were both caught in the lake." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Filled in 1967, Lake Diefenbaker is a 140-mile-long reservoir along the South Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers. Diefenbaker is renowned for harboring extremely large fish: the world record rainbow trout (48 pounds) and burbot (25 pounds) were both caught in the lake.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "The red, sediment-filled Colorado River contrasts with blue-green Havasu Creek in the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River is almost always red in spring and summer, since it collects silt from a huge watershed. Short tributaries, however, usually run clear—only picking up significant sediment during flash floods." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “The red, sediment-filled Colorado River contrasts with blue-green Havasu Creek in the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River is almost always red in spring and summer, since it collects silt from a huge watershed. Short tributaries, however, usually run clear—only picking up significant sediment during flash floods.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Dark green fields stand out against the pale desert floor in Pinal County, Arizona. The region’s farms rely on irrigation, since they receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Irrigation water comes from two main sources: the Colorado River and aquifers." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Dark green fields stand out against the pale desert floor in Pinal County, Arizona. The region’s farms rely on irrigation, since they receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Irrigation water comes from two main sources: the Colorado River and aquifers.” Credit: Planet Labs