In early February, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station began launching the first two in a “flock” of 28 cylinder-shaped elfin satellites into orbit around the Earth.
The satellites, small cylinder-like devices weighing less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds), join a multitude of a half-dozen spacecraft in a low-earth trajectory that will photograph every square inch of the planet on a regular basis.
Welcome to the era of “New Space,” where a small, but growing number of emerging hardware companies – many venture backed – are starting to take over the reins of space exploration as Washington, D.C., and other government agencies worldwide, shift the financial burden to private enterprise.
Planet Labs Inc, which built the gaggle of satellites being deployed from the space station, is one of those new companies seeking to commercialize activities in space. The company’s satellites are designed to function just a couple of years before falling out of orbit and disintegrating in the Earth’s atmosphere. They will be replaced by a next generation of satellites that are based on the latest advancements in constantly-evolving smartphone technology.
The San Francisco-based startup has raised more than $65 million in two rounds, including participation from Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
Steve Jurvetson, managing partner of DFJ, is one of the venture capitalists on the forefront of investing in the new space phenomenon. He said he didn’t see much that interested him and his partners until recently.
He said that new ventures like Planet Labs will give new life to industry that has been in the doldrums since President Obama abandoned the Space Shuttle program two years ago.
“We’re seeing breakthrough after breakthrough at an incredible pace. We’re in the middle of re-engineering the entire concept of how you build satellites,” Jurvetson said.
The technology is now driven by commercial rather than strictly scientific uses, since private enterprise, not government agencies, are covering more of the costs of future missions, said Jurvetson, a space aficionado who has on display at DFJ many historical artifacts from NASA and Soviet space missions.
He said that shift should prove profitable for the startups in the sector for satellite services, which generated $200 billion in revenue in 2012.
Late in 2013, Planet Labs said it had raised a $52 million Series B round led by Russian investor Yuri Milner, with participation from Industry Ventures, Felicis Ventures, Lux Capital and Venrock Partner Ray Rothrock.
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