Spire, Planet Labs Shrug Off Launch Disaster For Elon Musk’s SpaceX

This week began shakily for the aerospace industry with news that an unmanned rocket launched by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX had exploded shortly after launch on Sunday.
What Musk described on Twitter as “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank” scuttled one of the company’s missions to take supplies to astronauts at the International Space Station.

But then venture capital firms, apparently undaunted, invested $40 million in San Francisco-based Spire, a satellite maker that will be relying on outside rocket launch organizations such as SpaceX to get scores of its small units aloft over the next two or three years.

Spire, which bills itself “a satellite-powered data company,” plans to collect atmospheric information for weather prediction using sensor-laden cubesats—about the size of a box for a single bottle of wine—in low earth orbit.

The satellites, (one is pictured above) to be positioned to cover Earth’s oceans, can also track ship locations. With only one satellite yet in orbit, Spire is already marketing its services to shipping companies, global trade organizations, governments, and others that need accurate information about weather events such as severe storms, the company said in its fundraising announcement Tuesday.

But will Hawthorne, CA-based SpaceX’s setbacks in developing robust, re-usable, and more affordable launch rockets affect Spire’s plan to establish a constellation of 100 satellites by the end of 2017?

“Not at all,” Spire’s head of business operations Chris Wake told me in an e-mail exchange. “Space is hard, and that will not change in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, we are not exclusive to one launch partner.”

Wake says Spire’s satellites can be tucked into rocket nooks and crannies that would otherwise have been used to store ballast materials such as sand for proper weight distribution. About 70 percent of the rockets launched in 2014 could have accommodated a Spire satellite, he says.

“We will begin launching our satellites on a near monthly basis beginning in September 2015, thus our launch schedule is not adversely affected by any one failure,” Wake says. “Not to mention, there are many new upstarts in the launch space focused solely (or primarily) on small satellite launches, so the supply continues to increase consistently.” Spire aims to have 20 satellites in space by the end of this year.

Launch mishaps may be seen as just the cost of doing business for satellite companies and their investors. Another San Francisco satellite company, Planet Labs, lost 26 of its satellites set for launch in October when an Orbital Sciences rocket exploded in Virginia. Less than three months later, equity investors had pledged $70 million to Planet Labs, and by April that Series C financing round had grown to a total of $118 million, including a $25 million debt facility. Planet Labs also successfully sent up 14 satellites in April with an alternate rocket company—SpaceX.

But in the failed launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket Sunday, Planet Labs lost all eight of its satellites aboard. CEO and co-founder Will Marshall’s blog post on the loss was far from condemning. In a kind of space pioneer solidarity, Marshall expressed sympathy for SpaceX.

“We’ve said it before: space is hard,” Marshall wrote. “This was the nineteenth overall flight for the Falcon 9 rocket, and SpaceX’s first-ever commercial launch failure.”

SpaceX has been a catalyst for investment in private aerospace companies, and in January it raised its own $1 billion financing round led by Google and Fidelity. Both SpaceX and Google are interested in fielding their own satellites for Internet communications. Google acquired Mountain View, CA-based Skybox Imaging for $500 million in mid-2014.

Planet Labs’ backers include Data Collective, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Russian investor Yuri Milner, and International Finance Corporation (IFC), a division of the World Bank Group. Western Technology Investment supplied the $25 million debt facility.

As for Spire, its $40 million Series B financing round announced this week was led by Promus Ventures, joined by new investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Jump Capital, along with existing investors RRE Ventures, Lemnos Labs, and others. The round brings Spire’s fundraising total to more than $80 million.

Both Planet Labs and Spire are members of a new generation of space companies creating smaller, cheaper satellites to do some of the tasks formerly done exclusively by much larger satellites, but at much lower cost. That low-cost model may allow them to sell geophysical data to customers who previously couldn’t afford it.

Spire executive Chris Wake says traditional satellites can cost anywhere from hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars. “On the other hand, Spire satellites cost one to two orders of magnitude less.”

These new space inventors, like robotics entrepreneurs, are drafting off the accomplishments of the computer and device industries to create their scaled-down satellites. They’re using commercially available, miniaturized components such as batteries, accelerometers, motors, semiconductors, and sensors.

Planet Labs, which has launched more than 100 satellites, takes frequent snapshots of the Earth’s surface, generating data that can be used by business enterprises as well as by public agencies and non-governmental organizations providing services such as disaster relief.

Spire’s satellites are designed to deduce valuable weather data—temperature, pressure, and humidity—by analyzing disturbances in radio frequency waves as they travel through the many layers of the atmosphere. The technology is called GPS radio occultation. The satellites can also pick up signals emitted from ship transponders.

“In the maritime industry, our goal is to provide consumers with the single greatest understanding of global trade that has ever existed,” Wake says.

The satellites can also prepare communities to deal with weather emergencies, by supplying predictions as much as 20 days in advance, he says.

“For example, the latest snowstorm that hit New York City and Boston was a bit of a weather prediction catastrophe. What had been anticipated as the biggest storm to hit NYC, ended up being mild, and the real storm ended up hitting Boston,” Wake told me. “This major inaccuracy, and others like it, are not only a nuisance, but also a potential danger to the unsuspecting public.”

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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