Investing in Space

This image of Spain is the first from an all-seeing satellite constellation by startup ICEYE

Key Points
  • Satellite startup ICEYE gave CNBC a look at the first image from its ICEYE-X2 satellite in orbit.
  • The X2 satellite was launched last week on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the "SmallSat Express" mission for Spaceflight Industries.
  • The first ICEYE-X2 image shows the mountainous areas of Spain's Basque Country at night.
The first photo from ICEYE's satellite ICEYE-X2, showing the Natural Parks Aralar and Aizkorri-Aratz of Spain on December 7, 2018.

Satellite startup ICEYE is riding a wave of success this year. Just days after its launch, the company got back its first image from ICEYE-X2, its second satellite. The company gave CNBC an exclusive look at the image on Monday.

The first ICEYE-X2 image shows the mountainous areas of Spain's Basque Country at night. Forest, roads and agriculture are visible in the image, which contains over 500 square kilometers, captured at a resolution of 3 by 3 meters. That's the expected, medium resolution for a high-powered satellite, but ICEYE packed that power into a suitcase-sized satellite.  The X2 satellite was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last week on the record-breaking "SmallSat Express" mission for Spaceflight Industries.

ICEYE is combining a special type of earth observation technology — SAR, short for synthetic aperture radar — with a small, inexpensive satellite. SAR allows a satellite to provide images at any time, even at night or through cloud cover.

A Google Maps comparison of the ICEYE-X2 image

"X2 has proven successful ... this is a 10 times better resolution than last time," ICEYE CEO Rafal Modrzewski told CNBC. 

After the successful debut of the X1 satellite in January, ICEYE incorporated more than 50 improvements into X2, Modrzewski said. The ICEYE-X2 satellite is much like the beta test of new software, Modrzewski explained. Once testing is complete, the company will began commercial operations with X2, making it the cornerstone of a constellation of SAR satellites.

ICEYE plans to have a network of 18 satellites by 2020, offering near-real time comparisons of changes on the ground. Modrzewski says the company will launch as many as eight in 2019, "depending on how fast we can purchase launches."

Once ICEYE has six satellites in the constellation, Modrzewski says the company's "first step in terms of the commercial service" will be to "provide global 24 hours repeat capability." This means that ICEYE will be able to provide an image of a place on Earth in exactly the same position as an image taken 24 hours previously, showing even small changes.

"None of the current satellites or constellations can guarantee you 24 hours repeat service," Modrzewski said.

That commercial service capability "is probably sufficient for the company to reach profitability," Modrzewski said.

A computer rendering shows the ICEYE-X2 satellite in orbit above the Earth.

SAR satellite technology "has been a very government and military application for a long time," Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson told CNBC. Space Angels invested in ICEYE early in the company's development, as Anderson says the start-up "had a really interesting, really novel approach."

"Many people were very skeptical of what they were proposing because no one had ever done this in this weight class and cost," said True Ventures partner Rohit Sharma, another early investor in ICEYE.

"Prior to [ICEYE], people had built SAR satellites with hundreds of engineers and at over 100 times the cost," Sharma said.

After its debut launch, ICEYE more than double its total backing in a $34 million round of fundraising. The new funds mean ICEYE will be able to build nine satellites for that constellation, including the one launched last week.