international space station
February 12, 2014

Largest Ever Constellation Of CubeSats Launched On Tuesday

[ Watch the Video: Flock Of Doves Launch From ISS ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A new fleet of small satellites believed to be the largest single constellation of Earth-imaging probes ever launched began deploying from the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday, NASA officials have announced.

The Flock 1 satellites, as they have been dubbed, were built and operated by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, the US space agency explained. The 28 probes, which are referred to individually as Doves, are members of a class of miniature satellites known as CubeSats and will capture images of our planet for a variety of uses.

“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,” said Planet Labs co-founder Robbie Schingler. “One tenet that we have is to make sure that we produce more value than we actually capture, so we have an open principle within the company with respect to anyone getting access to the data.”

Each of the Flock 1 satellites will be autonomous, taking pictures over various locations, storing them and then transmitting them back to Earth once they reach position over a ground station. Planet Labs will then process the pictures and upload them, where anyone who wishes to use the data will be allowed to access it.

The Dove CubeSats could also be used in association with unmanned aerial vehicles and high-resolution imaging satellites in order to gather additional data or more detailed images of a previously identified target. The images could also assist with disaster relief, climate change monitoring and the agricultural industry, NASA explained.

Schingler said that his firm’s goal “is to image everywhere very frequently… If you image everywhere, then that actually means that you can image anywhere. That’s going to be quite transformative for a number of countries, for a number of companies, and so forth. Our monitoring capability is always on. We are always taking a picture.”

“Commercial applications of the imagery include mapping, real estate and construction, and oil and gas monitoring,” NASA added. “If a company has high-value, distributed assets that need regular monitoring, Flock 1 imagery can assist in this type of endeavor. For example, Flock 1 can supplement or replace the need for flying a helicopter over an oil pipeline to monitor for a leak, since the 28 Dove CubeSats can quickly collect the necessary imagery.”

The Dove CubeSats will have a higher revisit rate (the frequency with which the probes will return to certain areas) than other satellite systems currently in orbit, and the probes will collect images at latitudes within 52 degrees of the equator, allowing it to monitor most of the world’s populated zones and primary agricultural regions.

The satellites will also be traveling in a lower orbit than most of their counterparts, maintaining a distance from Earth of between 240 and 400 miles. In comparison, the geostationary orbits usually maintained by weather and communications satellites are typically just over 22,000 miles above the surface at the Earth’s equator.

“The deployment of 28 satellites all at once is going to be the largest deployment of a single constellation of satellites that works together at one time and the largest Earth-observation constellation of satellites ever,” Schingler said. “This is possible because we are able to get to space via the space station.”