(Source: BLUEamnesiac on deviantART)
Satellites could one day double to provide internet and self-aware algorithms to Google's customers

Google Inc. (GOOG) spent much of 2013 and 2014 on a tear with aggressive acquisitions.  Now it's made yet another bold bid, scooping up Skybox Imaging, a satellite imaging firm.  According to RE/Code the deal is worth $500M USD and it was slow burning.  Talks reportedly began in April, but it wasn't until Skybox scored $70M USD in a May venture capital fundraising round that Google lofted such a substantial valuation.

I. HD Imaging for Google Earth

One of Google's best selling points of its search engine and its Android operating system is its tightly integrated Google Earth service, which provides detailed maps of the world.  Launched in 2004 with the acquisition of startup KeyHole, Inc. Inspired by the Boeing Comp.'s (BA) Edge world visualization project and the ficitional "Earth" software described in Neal Stephenson's sci-fi classic Snow Crash, Google Earth has evolved into a maps resource unmatched by its rivals.

Google Earth for Android

With the acquisition, Google gains the technology necessary to upgrade Google Earth to HD resolution and perhaps accomplish even more exotic goals.

Google Earth is currently stitched together from lower-resolution data from the aging Landsat Project.  Some of the highest resolution data -- offered at a 2.5 meter imaging resolution -- is obtained from a pair of satellites owned by SpotImage, a French satellite firm that is majority owned by the space wing of The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. (EADS) (EPA:EAD).

Spot 5
Google currently gets much of its imaging data from EADS's Spot 5 satellite.
[Image Source: Spot Image]

Skybox -- as the name might imply --employs tiny box-shaped satellites to provide its own in-house imaging capabilities.  Based in Google's hometown of Mountain View, Calif., the company was found by a collective of Stanford University graduate students in 2009 by Dan Berkenstock, Julian Mann, John Fenwick, and Ching-Yu Hu.

Backed by the likes of Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Asset Management Ventures, CrunchFund, Canaan Partners and Norwest Venture Partners, the startup grew to have over 120 employees and aggressively pursued its dreams of a fleet of tiny imaging satellites.

Skybox's fleet consists of microsatellites, which draw inspiration from the slightly smaller "CubeSat" (cube satellites) of academia.  It would probably be appropriate to refer to tradition CubeSat designs as "nanosatellites" and refer to Skybox's SkySat design as a "microsatellite".

While increasingly popular in academia in recent years, only a handful of companies such as the Boeing Comp. (BA) have successfully tested microsatellite or nanosatellite designs.  While Skybox Imaging isn't alone, it's clearly a member of an elite circle of commercial micro/nanosatellite makers, a circle which includes both startups and veterans.

While it's only been around for five years, Skybox has already surpassed SpotImage by providing image resolution of Earth's surface of less than a meter, snapping "HD" video clips at 30 frames per second, snapped in 90-second clips.

Skybox's vision is to have a fleet of 24 satellites in orbit. [Image Source: Skybox]

Skybox's long-term objective -- which presumably will be continued by its new owner -- is to have a network of 24 microsatellites in orbit, continuously collecting high resolution data rivalling any commercially available alternative.  The satellites -- the first of which is already in orbit -- measure 60 x 60 x 95 centimeters (roughly 2 x 2 x 3 feet) and weigh roughly 120 kilograms (~265 pounds).

Each satellite will have a lifespan of four years given their off-the-shelf components.  But they will cost less than $50M USD to build and launch -- less than half the cost of a traditional satellite.  Once the network is complete, Skybox will launch six to eight microsatellites per year to replace the eldest members of its fleet.

II. The CubeSat Comes of Age

The roots of Skybox Imaging lie in the drafting of the CubeSat protocol in 1999.

First devised by Professor Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO) and Professor Bob Twiggs of Stanford University, the idea of the "CubeSat" was popularized by a 2000 conference talk at the 2000 AIAA/USU Annual Conference on Small Satellites.

Frustrated with the slow pace of progress that was in part exacerbated by the scale and complexity of satellite designs at the time, CubeSat represented a major paradigm shift for the commercial satellite industry.

SkySat-1, Skybox's first CubeSat [Image Source: Skybox Imaging]

It suggested building satellites out of robust off the shelf components from the automotive sector and other industrial sectors, rather than relying on expensive specialty niche electronics.  Furthermore, the CubeSat paradigm required builders to squeeze components into a small space -- a 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter cube (or roughly 1/3rd of a foot per side) and a 1.33 kilogram (a little less than 3 pounds) weight.  By reducing the weight and space, multiple CubeSat constructs could be affordably launched into Earth orbit from a single rocket launch.

The first CubeSat launch (or at least the first widely publicized one) occurred in June 2003.

Traditional 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSats are today referred to as 1U designs, while larger 20 x 10 x 10 cm (2U) and 30 x 10 x 10 cm (3U) designs have extended the spec into slightly larger designs.  Most are deployed using Cal Poly's proprietary Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) technology.

A 342U design, the SkySat is a little too big to be considered a CubeSat, but it's on the threshold of the protocol in terms of weight (typically the largest CubeSats measure 120U, indicating a weight of up to 120 kg).  Semantics aside, the SkySat shares much in common with the CubeSat, including its use of widely available commercial electronics components.
SkySat is tiny compared to its imaging rivals, but it dwarfs them in accuracy.
[Image Source: Skybox Imaging]

On its technology page Skybox writes:

Skybox was founded out of the CubeSat community and we are ardent believers in the power of commodity, commercial electronics to change the cost of doing business in space. Our industry is experiencing tremendous disruption through reductions in launch costs and modern commercial electronic components that are capable of high performance and high reliability in orbit.

Traditional satellites capable of taking imagery at better than 1 meter resolution weigh thousands of kilograms, which makes it prohibitively expensive to launch enough of them to capture timely imagery. We have produced similar performance in a box 20x smaller by breaking open the many black boxes that define traditional systems and creating an optimized design using automotive grade electronics. The circuitry that drives our satellites - providing power, attitude control, communications, thermal management, and imaging support - are about the size of a phone book and consume less power than a 100w light bulb. We've integrated the latest, greatest, and fastest commercially available FPGAs, processors, and memory to ensure our small satellites pack the largest possible punch.

Their small size means we can afford to launch lots of satellites, and provide you lots of timely, sub-meter imagery and video, along with powerful derived analytics. 

Many space startups never get off the ground -- literally.  But after receiving press hype, Skybox Imaging last year survived a crucial test when it launched its first production satellite -- SkySat-1 aboard a Dnepr rocket from Yasny, Russia.
SkySat-1 Launch
SkySat-1 reached orbit courtesy of a packed Dnepr rocket which launched from Russia in November.
[Image Source: st2nh]


Moreover, SkySat-1 has since performed magnificently, publishing the kinds of HD video and images that previous had only been available to government intelligence agencies of top space superpowers.

III. A Software Firm and More

The beautfy of the cube satellite effort is that it allows efforts like Skybox Imaging.  While Skybox has modest sophistication when it comes to designing space satellites, with a number of veterans of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and various academic research labs, it some regards lacks the experience that a company like EADS or Boeing has to offer.

SkySat-1 is pictured here during its testing and assembly in 2013. [Image Source: IEEE Spectrum]

But at the end of the day Skybox Imaging has shown that one can accomplish more by focusing on software than on the finer mechanics of software design. SkySat-1 only needed to achieve a stable orbit and have sound fundamental design to ensure continuous operation over its short lifespan.  The majority of its "magic" when it comes to the company's HD imaging is courtesy of its unique software algorithms which are found both on its terrestrial servers and in orbit on the satellite's reprogrammable FPGA brains.

On the terrestrial side, Skybox Imaging's data collection efforts are powered by Cloudera, Inc. a Google-funded big data hosting platform that uses Apache Hadoop Linux servers.

Google has bold future plans for the company's satellite fleet -- including possibly expanding the fleet of CubeSats to include future SkySats that doubled both as imaging satellites and as providers of satellite internet.  Google writes to investors:

[Skybox Imaging's] satellites will help keep our maps accurate with up-to-date imagery. Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in.

In terms of Google's return on investment, the purchase of Skybox Imaging seems like a no-brainer, given how seemlessly it blends into Google's existing projects.  Google isn't buying a green firm, it's bought a true innovator who has already proven itself in a very short timeframe.  One needs only to look at the beautiful, jaw-dropping images that Skybox Imaging's satellite is today producing on a daily basis to appreciate what a smart move this acqusition is for Google.  Google is very much buying a proven quantity, young as its new partner may be.

Skybox Imaging and Google
Currently Skybox Imaging is on pace to launch its second and third satellite before the end of this year.  Assuming the acquisition is approved, it wouldn't be surprising to see Google spending some of its substantial cash pile to accelerate the deployment of the network of imaging satellites, which one might creatively dub "SkyNet" (Skybox + network).

Sources: Skybox Imaging [press release], Google [press release], RE/Code, The Information

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