Pint-Size Satellites Promise Spy-Quality Images—Cheap

An Iranian immigrant in Silicon Valley is challenging the $500 million behemoths and touting night shots that pierce cloud cover.
Illustration: 731

For decades, spy agencies have had access to a magic-seeming technology known as SAR, or synthetic aperture radar. A satellite with SAR onboard can send radar beams from space that bounce off Earth and then return to a sensor, which assembles the information to produce an immaculate image. The key to the technology—what separates it from high-powered optical telescopes—is that the beams can pass through clouds and work at night. They make the invisible visible.

A young company in Palo Alto called Capella Space, which announced $12 million in new funding on May 9, has figured out a way to create much smaller, cheaper versions of SAR satellites. If the technology lives up to its billing, it would make this type of imaging available to businesses, not just governments. The idea is that hedge funds, farmers, city planners, and others would buy the pictures to track changes in the world around them. “We’re going after hourly images of anywhere on Earth that people care about,” says Payam Banazadeh, Capella’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

Researchers in the U.S. began developing SAR after World War II with military applications in mind. Lockheed Martin Corp. claims to have built the first operational version in the ’50s. Since then, SAR has largely remained in the realm of espionage and military strategy. A typical satellite can be the size of a bus, weigh 2,500 pounds, and cost as much as $500 million.

SAR satellites are big and expensive because they need a lot of power to send a radar beam 300 miles to Earth and a large antenna to pick up the returning signal. Capella uses cheap, powerful consumer electronics, artificial intelligence algorithms, and modern control software to get a constellation of satellites working as a unit.

Each Capella satellite is about the size of a beach ball, weighs almost 100 pounds, and can produce black-and-white images at 1-meter resolution, about what you’d get with the military models. The goal is to put up 36 of these satellites and have them monitor such things as ports, oil-storage centers, and cities. Because radar sees more than a camera does, Capella’s satellites can detect the moisture levels of a farm’s soil and determine, for example, if a truck drove across a dirt road at night. “You will see that the ground was compacted maybe 1 or 2 millimeters,” Banazadeh says. “The path of that truck will light up superbright in the picture.”

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

San Francisco’s Planet Labs Inc. has dominated the market for new types of imaging satellites. Its network of about 150 satellites snaps pictures of every spot on Earth every day. The ability to take such frequent images surpasses anything done by military-grade satellites, and Planet’s pictures have been gobbled up by governments, farmers, and hedge funds. Banazadeh once applied for a job at Planet but was rejected, prompting him to start Capella and provide the nighttime and cloudy pictures that Planet cannot yet get.

To succeed, Capella will need to outflank companies such as Airbus SE and Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates Ltd., whose much pricier satellites rule the SAR market, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to Northern Sky Research. Tim Farrar, a satellite and telecom consultant at TMF Associates Inc., is skeptical that Capella will find a large market for its images. “The radar satellite stuff is very complicated and has only been moderately successful,” he says. “There hasn’t been a lot of commercial action.”

Banazadeh says it’s hard to say what a commercial market could look like, given that the image prices under the government satellite system are way higher ($4,000 to $8,000 a pop) than his will be. The 26-year-old is certainly up for a challenge, having taken a circuitous route to get his business going.

Born in Iran, he ended up in Houston for elementary school. At age 10, he was suspended for organizing a Pokémon tournament, and his father, an electrical engineer, decided to move the family back to Tehran. Banazadeh returned to Houston at 16 and lived on his own while finishing high school. He says he spent most nights alone eating cheap food. “It was a lot of the dollar menu at McDonald’s and these frozen chicken patties I would get from Wal-Mart.”

Banazadeh didn’t fit in at school and was largely ignored until soon-to-be-famous classmate Andrew Luck, now the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, took notice of him in a U.S. government class. “He saw me sitting in the corner and started talking to me,” Banazadeh says. “Then other people started talking to me, and life became a lot better.” Banazadeh went on to become a curve killer at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering, and then got a job building satellites at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Capella says it will launch its first satellite later this year, followed by several more in 2018. “What exists right now is rarefied and expensive,” says Nabeel Hyatt, a general partner at Spark Capital, a Capella investor. “We believe there is a massive market for these images if you can get the price right.”

The bottom line: Capella says its network of satellites will be able to roughly match the image quality of Pentagon-grade $500 million models.

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