At BlackSky, the timeliness of satellite imagery is a cornerstone of our business proposition. We drove timeliness directly into the design of every aspect of our system, and we place such value on it that we built Gemini, the internal name for our in-house designed and implemented constellation orchestration solution, to do the planning and tasking faster and more efficiently than a team of human operators.
Timeliness starts in our Platform products like Spectra and Events. A customer can use Spectra anytime, on a tablet or a computer, to order a satellite image through an interactive map of the Earth. Spectra then tells the user what satellites in our constellation will be passing over the location in the next few days and allows users to place a tasking order. Spectra sends that order to Gemini. No phone, no fax machine, no human — welcome to 2018.
Gemini learns from the platform where you want an image, and then it finds the fastest way to capture that image and get it back to you. It takes all outstanding image requests, the location of our groundstations around the world, the orbits of all of the BlackSky satellites in our constellation, and creates a plan. That plan includes which satellite will take that picture, which groundstation will task that satellite, and which groundstation will downlink the image after it has been taken. After the plan is complete, the satellite communication plan is handed off to the appropriate groundstation for the upcoming contact pass with the satellite. If weather or other factors prevent a contact pass from happening, the platform will automatically replan the image for collection or downlink at the next available opportunity. Note that there is no human involved in this process — the image tasking process and, if necessary, recovery is entirely automated.
We carefully selected our groundstation locations around the world with timeliness in mind, both in tasking the satellite and then downlinking the image after it has been taken. Each groundstation operates “lights out”. The groundstation software takes the communication plan and controls the RF equipment and antennas before, during, and after the contact pass. During the contact pass the groundstation software talks to the satellite sending up new mission scripts for future image collection, downlinking images that were taken, and relaying health telemetry back to the cloud infrastructure. The system handles any minor communication anomalies and escalates to satellite operators anything it can’t handle itself. Throughout the contact pass operators in the Missions Operations Center (MOC) can watch the automated contact pass and view satellite and groundstation telemetry in real-time — or see a report the next day on the contact passes that happened overnight while they were asleep.
As images are downlinked from the spacecraft they are sent back to our cloud infrastructure and into our image processing pipeline. Here the images go through several steps in our custom pipeline to prepare the final imaging product, including things like geolocation and orthorectification. Our modular image processing pipeline was designed to scale out as the constellation grows to ensure timely processing of images.
Once image processing is complete the images are sent back to Spectra which notifies the customer that their tasked image is available. The tasking-to-delivery round-trip time varies based on many variables (satellite orbits, daylight, image collection location, groundstation locations, etc) but in many cases it is measured in hours, not days.
BlackSky was designed from the ground-up around automation with an explicit objective of getting humans out of the loop for day-to-day operations because humans just slow things down, and timeliness is money.