Proof That Cheaper Satellites Still Can Take Incredibly Detailed Photos Of Earth

Military communications satellites can cost billions. Skybox Imaging’s satellites cost less than $50 million and are still producing great images. Here’s the proof.

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.


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.

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.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.