Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Friday, 3 January 2014

Biggest ever satellite constellation to be launched - from Nasa's flight facility in Virginia -

Biggest ever satellite constellation to be launched - from Nasa's flight facility in Virginia - 

They are no bigger than a bread tin, but the Dove satellites are set to break new ground in space exploration.
A flock of 28 are to be put into orbit from Nasa's station at Wallops, about 170 miles south east of Washington DC.
They are radically different from conventional monster satellites.
Not only are they smaller, but they fly far lower than traditional satellites, orbiting at around 310 miles above the earth rather than more than 500 miles.
Although the price is a commercial secret, the Doves cost a lot less to build than the billion dollar behemoth "battlestars" of previous decades.

"We are now getting to the point that you can get useful stuff from small cheap satellites you could build – if not in your garage – something not much larger than that," said Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"People have built small satellites in the past, but they were very limited.
"What these guys have done is miniaturised everything, so most of the satellite is the telescope."
The results are impressive: "It's the difference between a webcam and high definition."
Deploying the Doves in a flock has additional advantages.
Not only are they more agile than conventional larger satellites, but acting in concert, they are capable of producing images far faster, more frequently and covering a greater area than before.
It means a business relying on satellite images does not have to wait weeks to get the picture from space it needs, as is currently the case with the conventional larger equivalents.
The Doves have been developed in San Francisco by Planet Labs, a company whose founders include Will Marshall, a Briton and Oxford graduate.
Currently the satellites are being transported across the USA in pelican cases – equipment often used by photographers to protect their cameras.
Planet Labs are already in talks with a number of mapping companies who are interested in using the images.
"The latest generation of satellites will enable us to image the whole globe at high frequency, producing an unprecedented data set that will unlock huge commercial, environmental and humanitarian value," Dr Marshall said.
These satellites are scheduled to stay up in space for around three years, which in space terms is short almost to the point of being regarded as disposable.
The pictures sent back will be sufficiently detailed to provide an image of something like a tree canopy, but not so detailed as to raise questions of privacy and intrusion.
"You will be able to see big shapes, such as trucks," a company spokesman said.
It sees a variety of uses from commercial to humanitarian.
At one end of the scale, it will enable big commercial organisations to get real-time images of their property across the globe.
The images could also be useful in tracking climate change, crop disease, deforestation and wildfires as well as aiding humanitarian relief by providing swift images of disaster zones to help in targeting emergency aid.


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