A recent story in the news is a rumour that Google may be planning to sell its satellite imaging business Terra Bella (formerly Skybox Imaging) to satellite imaging company Planet (formerly Planet Labs).
Google acquired Terra Bella, then Skybox Imaging, in mid 2014. At the time, Terra Bella had two satellites, SkySats 1 and 2. It added five more satellites to its constellation in 2016, SkySat 3 in June and then SkySats 4 through 7 in September. It has more launches planned for 2017, with some sources suggesting a fleet of 21 satellites by the end of the year.
It makes sense that Google would choose to sell Terra Bella as it really is not a particularly good fit with its other businesses. Terra Bella specialises in medium resolution satellite imagery – higher resolution than Landsat and Sentinel-2 but lower resolution than DigitalGlobe and CNES/Astrum the two main suppliers of satellite imagery for Google Earth. Terra Bella’s focus is cheap satellites and rapid or regular acquisition (enabled by launching a relatively large number of satellites). This is the exact same market that Planet is in, except Planet currently has a much larger fleet. Planet makes its own cheap satellites it calls Doves. We do not know how many are currently in orbit, but in just one launch last year it deployed 12 at once. You can see some others being launched from the Space Station on Planets Blog. Planet also acquired RapidEye in 2015, which consists of a fleet of five satellites.
We have only once seen a Terra Bella image in Google Earth and it was removed soon after we discovered it. It appeared to have been a test of some sort and was in the middle of the Sahara where Google probably thought nobody would notice it.
A gif animation of the Burning Man festival created by Terra Bella.
About Timothy Whitehead
Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.