SAR satellite start-ups Iceye, Umbra Lab and Capella Space are vying to revolutionize space radar.

Growing demand for synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery has collided with the small satellite revolution forming Iceye, Umbra Lab and Capella Space led by savvy entrepreneurial visionaries. These venture-backed businesses have identified the high demand for SAR imagery as a lucrative opportunity to disrupt the satellite imaging market.

Capella Space and Iceye are following the Planet model (Small Satellite > Data > Analysis > Retail Sales) and building comprehensive downstream platforms to compete in the rapidly growing geospatial analysis market with firms like Ursa SpaceSpace Know, Orbital Insights and Descartes Labs. Umbra Lab is seemingly focused on selling their imagery directly to analysis firms not end users.

Today’s SAR imaging market is being serviced by traditional aerospace conglomerates.  Costs to build and launch one of their high-performance satellites can easily exceed $100M and to recover costs these conglomerates must maintain relatively high price points.  Demand has been sufficient to support sky-high pricing of $5,000 or more for a single high-resolution SAR image.

To overcome larger incumbents new space SAR startups are turning to a common theme. Provide SAR imagery as a service with a thin layer of less expensive more nimble satellite hardware. Satellite construction, launch and operation is now a commodity with experienced manufacturers competing to provide turnkey services. Each company must marry their commodity small satellite components to a useful radar payload, which each startup is building internally.  Expect recurring satellite costs in the vicinity of $3M regardless of the startup or their approach.  Clearly an improvement, but only part of the solution.

The key to disrupting the SAR market, and ultimately the much larger market for optical imagery, is to produce higher resolution SAR imagery on a small platform.  Capella Space is angling to do so and compete directly with European incumbents, and Umbra Lab is determined to surpass everyone.

Established: 2014
Funding: $17M
Resolution: 10 X 10 meters (32.8 feet) with plans to improve to 3 meters
Constellation: 18
Jeff Foust of Space News reports, “Iceye plans to later launch a constellation of 18 satellites in order to provide revisit times of several hours.”
Note: Revisit resolution unclear.

Umbra Lab
Established: 2015
Funding: Undisclosed
Resolution: .10 X 0.25 meters (9.8 inches) and up
Constellation: 12
Umbra Lab’s website states, “Average hourly revisits are achievable with 12 satellites while maintaining 1 meter resolution.”

Capella Space
Established: 2016
Funding: $12M
Resolution: ” [Capella Space] can identify & classify almost all man made objects and most non-manmade objects that are 1 meter or larger in size.”
Constellation: 36
Capella Space’s CEO states, “in order to have hourly imagery a constellation of at least 36 of our satellites is required.”
Note: Azimuth and Range resolution is unclear. Revisit resolution also unclear.

Lower resolution imagery at high revisit rates may be attractive, but competitiveness is hindered by free data from the ESA.  Ursa Space, a consumer of SAR data, weighs in, “This does leave a hole for a low cost, high-resolution radar satellite which is an opportunity for this industry.”  

What constitutes marketable data?  Today, most SAR revenues are derived from medium resolution imagery (>1m), but medium resolution market share is expected to fall quickly as higher resolution products become more affordable.  That may leave Iceye out in the cold.

The two American contenders are vying to serve up affordable high-resolution imagery and take leading positions in the evolving market.  Umbra Lab has been stealthy but is going all in to provide superior resolution and takes advantage of longer range to improve revisit rates.  Capella Space is walking the line between Iceye and Umbra Lab but with a middle of the road radar they’ll need 3x more satellites, and more money, to deliver a service with hourly revisits.


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