Yesterday, Skybox Imaging, a commercial company in Mountain View (CA), released the first images from SkySat-1, crisp, clear and astonishing photos with details as small as car colors easily visible. The resolution is high (sub-one-meter) for any satellite, but small size of SkySat-1 makes it even more remarkable.
SkySat-1’s high resolution images are clearer than even NASA’s legacy LandSat project. Admittedly, SkySat-1 is optimized for high resolution and LandSat 8 (the most recent satellite launched) has thermal sensing equipment in addition to imaging equipment. However, the difference in resolution between the two satellites’ resolution is remarkable. SkySat-1’s sub –one-meter resolution is far superior to LandSat 8’s 15-meter resolution on its panchromatic imager. In the two coastal photos, an observer can pick out individual clumps of foliage in SkySat-1’s Somalia photo, while LandSat 5 and LandSat 7’s images of the Senegal River Delta show foliage as mottled green areas.
Not only does SkySat-1 provide higher-resolution photos than its LandSat counterpart, it comes with a much lower price tag (as is typical of smaller satellites). When launch alone costs thousands of dollars per pound, NASA’s 4500 pound behemoth LandSat 7 is extremely expensive. SpaceNews reported SkySat-1’s mass as 100 kg (220 lbs), making SkySat-1 less than 5% as massive as LandSat 7. Accordingly, it should be 5% as expensive to launch. The savings in launch cost alone is astronomical.
With its relatively low-price satellites, Skybox Imaging can afford to create a constellation of 24 satellites, which would provide much more visual coverage of Earth than the LandSat program. Since 1972, NASA has launched only 8 LandSat satellites. With missions lasting 5-10 years, the number of LandSat satellites in the sky at one time is few. However, Skybox wants 24 satellites covering the Earth at the same time. If there is an area that needs to be imaged immediately, Skybox will likely be able to photograph the area long before LandSat arrives. Constellations of many satellites allow much more prompt responses to demands.
Skybox Imaging’s small satellite outperforms the legacy LandSat satellites in many ways. Although not as many instruments can be stuffed aboard a small satellite, the lower launch costs allow constellations, which can provide additional capabilities, like quick response time for imaging requests. Many are taking note of the capabilities of constellations, including large aerospace companies. ATK recently demonstrated satellite architecture for a United State Air Force weather satellite constellation.
Smaller and more numerous microsatellites are reaching into capabilities once solely reserved for behemoth satellites like LandSat.