Earth imaging start-up lost 26 satellites in Antares explosion

Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based start-up that wants to provide daily images of every spot on earth, lost 26 micro satellites when an Orbital Sciences rocket exploded shortly after lift-off Tuesday.

The Antares rocket burst into flames seconds after rising into the sky from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, falling back to the launch pad and then spectacularly exploding in a huge fireball.

The rocket was carrying a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Among the Cygnus cargo were 26 satellites, the fourth group of satellites to be launched by the company. They would have worked in unison with the three sets of satellites launched previously, to provide more regularly updated photographs of the planet.

The satellites on the Antares rocket were destined for an orbit that would have produced images with a roughly 4-meter per pixel resolution—considerably less detailed than other commercial providers—but would have provided images more often.

The company declined a request for comment, but in a statement on its website said the failure wouldn’t be catastrophic to the company.

“Planet Labs understands the risks of launch,” it said. “Our approach to mitigate these risks is to deploy our fleets of satellites on multiple launch vehicles, from multiple vendors. We also place more satellites in orbit than we require in each launch so that if satellites fail in orbit we ensure continuity.”

It didn’t say if the satellites were covered by insurance.

While Tuesday’s launch won’t kill its plans, it will slow them down.

Planet Labs has plans to launch a further set of satellites in 2015. It’s unclear if the company will attempt to replace the satellites lost on the Antares rocket.

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