Low orbit satellites
A Half Moon Bay company is working on new satellites with an array of implications. This is a model of what what they might look like, including solar panels on the wings. Photo courtesy Earth Observant

Earth Observant, a Half Moon Bay-based startup, was recently awarded funding from an Air Force contract to pursue its small satellite, very low orbit technology.

The company received this funding through a Small Business Innovative Research Program and was selected from a competitive pool of applicants.

“Our innovation is centered in flying in very low Earth orbits,” explained Paul Smith, chief operating officer and co-founder of Earth Observant. The company designs and ultimately builds these small satellites with the goal of having at least 30 satellites in space.

“We decided to use Half Moon Bay as our hub,” Smith said, explaining that CEO and co-founder Christopher Thein grew up and lives today in El Granada. Prior to the pandemic, the company was hosting meetings on the Coastside.

Smith compared the satellite technology to a telescope, which instead of pointing at the sky, points down at Earth. The satellites orbit at half the altitude of a traditional Earth satellite and, for this reason, he said, don’t require as big a telescope. That means users can have smaller satellites at a cheaper cost, while still retaining this really high resolution.

But why is it important to have these high resolution photos of the Earth’s surface?

“When you’re constantly taking pictures of Earth, you can see how it changes over time,” Smith said. Just as those pictures are used for military applications, he said, they can also be used for construction applications or monitoring changes in the vegetation of a habitat.

“For us, ultimately, we’re focused on basically providing a commodity service for the monitoring service of anything you want on the ground, for any business,” Smith said.

The satellites provide this visual information, but that information can be made more meaningful with analysis, Smith said. “Over time you start to see changes. That’s a really important thing,” he said.

The changes these satellites can track range from urban development with the growth of cities to the impact on air quality with air pollution. Smith also mentioned the ability of satellite images to track supply chains, seeing on a daily basis the transportation of different goods on rail lines or ships. “There’s a number of people who want to know where things are,” he said explaining the importance of providing this competitive intelligence regarding supply chains.

Earth Observant services would be relatively affordable. Today, a service like the one it is working toward, is still rather expensive, Smith noted.

The funding Earth Observant received through the Small Business Innovative Research Program will help in three ways. First, it will go toward research of its optical payload or the cameras used. When flying low, a special kind of camera able to capture images at high speeds is necessary. The second part is a method of processing the data to make it smaller, or edge computing, Smith explained. The resolution of Earth Observant’s satellites produce “literally terabytes of data every day,” said Smith. Finally, once the company has the data, how can it retrieve it from space? Smith said the company is working on a near real time transfer of the data that will “beam the data down to Earth right from overhead.”

And as Earth Observant starts to hire staff, company officials plan to recruit and remain on the Coastside.

“Our goal is to ultimately have a manufacturing facility out on the coast,” Smith said, explaining that it would not need to be a very large warehouse.

“We really need affordable, low-cost monitoring of the Earth’s surface,” Smith said, so that we are able “to show people in near real time the damage we’re doing to the Earth.”

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