Satellite-Sharing Enables Low-Cost Earth Observation

In August, Oleksii Kryvobok walked through a green and yellow field of sunflowers south of Kyiv, Ukraine, and measured the harvest’s photosynthetic activity with a device on a tripod. Hundreds of kilometers overhead, the EOS SAT-1 satellite, launched by Kryvobok’s employer, EOS Data Analytics (EOSDA), in Mountain View, California, was making the same measurements from orbit. 

The satellite, one of a planned fleet of seven, was joined in orbit in early November by a pair of competing Open Cosmos satellites. EOSDA and Open Cosmos are part of an emerging trend for earth observation (EO) satellites: they aim to use mini-constellations of small satellites to offer specialized EO data in much the same way bigger companies such as Planet and Maxar offer high resolution optical data to customers of all kinds.

The idea is that small-scale data buyers and small-scale satellites might be a good match, especially if the buyers only need a small fraction of what the satellites offer. For example, Open Cosmos offers a data-sharing platform to the owners of its satellites, such as the Andalusian Agricultural and Fisheries Management Agency (AGAPA) in Spain, so that AGAPA can save costs by allowing Open Cosmos to find other buyers for data from the majority of the satellite’s orbit that isn’t Andalusia. In the past, people weren’t as willing to share their data, says Open Cosmos mission manager Jordi Castellví, perhaps in part because a lot of earlier-generation satellites were defense-related.

Specialized but affordable satellites have potential to make surprising discoveries and create new opportunities both for businesses and for government agencies that regulate businesses. For example, GHGSat, which operates a constellation of a dozen methane-detecting satellites, in 2021 found surprising emissions in violation of EU rules from a pair of landfills just outside Madrid, Spain. This sort of precision is attracting customers from the insurance and investment industries, because it enables them to monitor clients or companies they might invest in for violations.

Another way companies including GHG and EOSAT are adding value is by combining their proprietary datasets with free datasets such as that from Europe’s Sentinel-2 satellite and the U.S. Landsat 8. “By complementing these data sources with the EOS SAT-1 satellite equipped with specific agricultural bands, we aim to achieve even more frequent revisit times and analysis capabilities for all areas of interest to our clients,” says EOSDA spokesperson Serhii Mischchenko.

Last month, the European Space Agency (ESA) held a meeting to promote commercialization of just this sort of EO missions. One presenter from Euroconsult estimated the market will grow at 6 percent per year over the next decade, creating a bevy of new opportunities in maritime, disaster management, environment, and energy. The combination of hardware and launch cost declines is enabling a growing number of relatively small companies to build and offer targeted EO missions to less sophisticated, but potentially more numerous, buyers than previous industry incumbents. Indeed, some economists have compared the trend to the boom in the airline industry that followed deregulation, as airlines found cost-saving ways to simplify and specialize in ways that grew the whole industry, rather than just carving out market share from competitors. “There is competition, but this competition is irrelevant because of the wider, deeper potential to be found in the unexplored market space,” wrote Silvia Rodriguez-Donaire and colleagues in the CEAS Space Journal last year.

Another advantage for small satellite operators is that they need only relatively small investments (Open Cosmos accepted a €50 million investment in September), which makes them more competitive in a sector that saw new investment cut in half last year, according to Euroconsult. That also means they don’t need to sell their services on a huge contract to a national defense or environment ministry, which were the historical buyers of satellite data. Instead, small satellite operators can sell the historical data they accumulate for cheap, and offer premium targeted observations to buyers who require them.

But first, like all remote sensing, they need to ground truth their new data. Earlier this month, EOSDA reported that its satellite’s readings matched the data captured by Kryvobok’s handheld device. That was one small step in a sunflower field for a scientist, one giant leap for a small satellite.

First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].