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Satellites that can see through clouds will launch in January

  • Finnish company ICEYE will launch its first microsatellite to orbit in January.
  • The company uses synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to provide real-time imagery even at night or through cloud cover.
  • The microsatellites, which are about the size of a duffel bag, will rideshare with other customers.
ICEYE engineers test hardware on one of the company's satellites in an anechoic chamber
ICEYE
ICEYE engineers test hardware on one of the company's satellites in an anechoic chamber

Technology known as earth observation satellites is one of the fastest growing sectors in the $350 billion space industry, and Finnish company ICEYE is on the bleeding edge.

ICEYE will launch its first microsatellite to orbit in January from India on a PSLV rocket, the company confirmed to CNBC.

The technology on board, synthetic aperture radar (or SAR), is designed to provide almost real-time imagery at any time — something current optical cameras cannot do as much 75 percent of the time.

"We use observation data to help our customers navigate through the world as it is, not as it was," CEO Rafal Modrzewski said. "It's a space-based information system, where you could launch any app on your smartphone to try to find a parking spot in New York City and find an empty one with the most recent data"

The microsatellites, which are about the size of a duffel bag, will rideshare with other customers both on the upcoming launch and in the future. ICEYE will launch two more in the next 12 months, working through broker Spaceflight Industries, on either PSLV or U.S. companies like SpaceX.

ICEYE has raised $17 million since its founding two years ago. True Ventures led the seed round in 2015 with $2.8 million. This year Draper Nexus led a $13 million round, with Seraphim Capital raising another $1.2 million in a later round.

While initially focused on providing data analysis to the maritime industry for help to sail among icebergs — which is how the company got its name — ICEYE now is looking to launch a global imaging constellation by the end of 2020.

By building small, low-cost satellites, Modrzewski sees the company serving industries such as agriculture, where farmers could project the results of a harvest by analyzing different metrics with SAR, such as soil composition or moisture.

After the first three satellites are in orbit, chief operating officer Pekka Laurila said ICEYE hopes to utilize small launch vehicles for its 18 satellite constellation "as they become available" from companies like Vector and Rocket Lab.

Note: This story has been updated to more specifically reflect the venture capital funding ICEYE received.