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Based in Mountain View, Calif., Skybox Imaging has plans to change the nature of this field with sub-$50 million satellites built using off-the-shelf electronics. Skybox launched its first satellite, SkySat-1, Nov. 21 from Yasny, Russia aboard a Dnepr rocket, and it began capturing its first images within hours of the payload door opening. Skybox released four of those photos Wednesday: two of Perth, Australia; one overlooking Abu Dhabi; and another of Somalia’s coast.
In 2013, the San Francisco-based company launched four test satellites (named Dove 1, Dove 2, Dove 3, Dove 4) and then built a fleet of 28 more (named Flock 1). Flock 1 is waiting at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility to be launched very soon. When they hit orbit, they will be “the largest constellation of Earth imaging satellites ever launched,” the co-founders say.
In the world of satellites, cheap is relative. While $50 million is a hefty price tag for most startups to stomach, it’s almost chump change compared with military communications satellites, which can cost upwards of a billion dollars each.
This is on top of raising $13 million just a few months ago in June from backers like Innovation Endeavors (Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s investment vehicle), Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Data Collective (home to VC Zachary Bogue, also known as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s husband).
“Most people spend years building any one satellite. We, at the max, spent months building this fleet of satellites,” co-founder Will Marshall told Business Insider. “We won’t tell what it cost us … a much lower cost than a typical satellite or it wouldn’t be possible to build so many.”
The image quality exceeded Skybox’s early expectations. Even in the photos’ untuned and uncalibrated state, the company said it is able to discern details, such as car windshields, varying car colors, and road markings in the Perth images. Given the cost-effectiveness of these satellites, the idea is to eventually launch 24 of them into space to provide comprehensive coverage orbiting Earth, beaming back images close to real time.