On July 14th, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched a large government earth observation satellite as its primary payload and 72 small satellites, including 48 for the earth observation company Planet (formerly Planet Labs). Planet has something in the range of 150 active small satellites, which they call Doves, viewing the earth in low earth orbit. (After a few years, the satellites reenter the atmosphere for a fiery destruction.) During the launch, one Dove happened to be passing overhead and took a series of images during the launch:
At Planet, we launch new satellite flocks regularly. For years, we’ve been talking about getting that perfect shot from space of a rocket mid-flight; and as our on-orbit fleet has grown in size, the odds of one of our satellites being in the right position to image these rocket launches have only increased. Last week, the orbits aligned.
Our Dove constellation is a monitoring one, meaning we point each Dove straight down, imaging what’s directly below in strips as the Earth rotates. In the hours leading up to our recent Soyuz launch we determined that a Dove would be near enough to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to get a shot of our newest flock launching. Once we determined it was possible, our Attitude Control team worked with our Mission Operations team to point a Dove at the launch pad.
And, to put it frankly, the results are pretty cool. Check out what we captured:
To create this animation, we pointed a Dove approximately 50 degrees off-nadir towards the pad, capturing one still image per second of the fixed target as the Dove travelled overhead at an approximate speed of seven kilometers per second (or 15,658 MPH). Then our Imaging Team cropped and stitched the stills together. All in all, this short clip covers about two and a half minutes in real-time including lift off and flight.
From an operational standpoint, these on-orbit maneuvers were exciting to perform. We realized we’d be able to snap these images about 5 hours prior to launch; and our extensive ground station network made it easy to get the target commands up to the satellite really quickly. The next morning, right around the time the Doves Flock 2k were deploying from the Soyuz into orbit, we received the data.
Looking through it for the first time was exciting for the team. We’ve captured some spectacular imagery over the last few years, but these launch shots of the Soyuz are some of my personal favorites. Learn more about the flock of 48 satellites of Flock 2k that launched onboard the Soyuz.
Here is a ground view of the launch:
Here’s a recent interview with Planet co-founder and CEO Will Marshall:
And a time-lapse of Planet images of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada for mass production of lithium batteries: