BUSINESS Ready for Blast Off
For as long has he can remember, Dan Katz has been interested in astronomy and space travel. Although it was difficult to star gaze as a boy living in the fog shrouded Sunset neighborhood, he was fascinated by the concept of space and the possibilities of traveling beyond this planet.
Even though childhood passions can wane as people grow into adulthood, Katz’s interest in outer space has not. He described it as “the final frontier” and said “there is simply so much yet to be discovered and so much we don’t know.” He has made a career of it and is currently the CEO and co-founder of a new space startup called Orbital Sidekick.
Several years after graduating with a physics degree from Bucknell University, Katz started working at the Palo Alto-based commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) in 2012. There he met Orbital Sidekick’s co-founder, Tushar Prabhakar, and learned about the technology and business of the satellite industry.
Working in Palo Alto, Katz and Prabhakar were inspired by the entrepreneurial spiritand technological advances happening around Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.
“It’s a hotbed of innovation and there is a lot of opportunity in the area,” Katz said.
The duo noticed that there was a burgeoning small satellite industry, which was challenging traditional satellite manufacturers, such as SSL, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. He said there was “a new space movement.” Companies like Planet Labs and Skybox were emerging to design and manufacture small satellites as an alternative to cost-prohibitive traditional, larger satellites.
Katz and Prabhakar decided to take a risk in the summer of 2016 and quit their jobs to co-found Orbital Sidekick. Based in Katz’s garage at Sixth Avenue and Irving Street, Orbital Sidekick would fill a gap within the burgeoning industry. Orbital Sidekick intends to place high-tech cameras on each of its shoebox-sized satellites.
“We asked ourselves where the gaps were in the technology and that’s where we came up with hyperspectral imaging,” Katz said.
Hyperspectral cameras perceive much more than the human eye and are more powerful than cameras that are currently on traditional imaging satellites.
Typical cameras, such as the ones used in smartphones, and the human eye perceive three color bands on the RGB (red, green, blue) spectrum. Hyperspectral imaging operates on a much broader scale and perceives hundreds of color bands, which can capture everything from visible light to infrared light.
Katz explained that the technology behind hyperspectral imaging has typically been used for studying astronomy and physics. Hyperspectral telescopes have been pointed out into the solar system and universe from various locations around the world and in outer space to study stars and planets for gases and matter that are imperceptible to the human eye.
Orbital Sidekick plans to use that technology to aim the cameras from space toward Earth. Katz said that there is a wide variety of practical uses for hyperspectral imaging.
He believes that the mining, agriculture, defense and disaster relief industries can all benefit from the technology. However, Orbital Sidekick is initially targeting the oil and gas industry before it expands to other areas.
“We can use this technology to detect leaks in oil pipelines,” Katz said. He described a hypothetical scenario in which a hyperspectral camera in space would be useful.
Currently, if an oil pipeline leaks in a sparsely populated area, it will take hours ordays to detect. Furthermore, it will be difficult to pinpoint the location of the leak without manually inspecting the pipeline. An Orbital Sidekick satellite would be able to detect the leak in near real time, which could save companies millions of dollars and benefit the environment by limiting the impact of oil leaks.
“When we talk about hyperspectral imaging, the kind of information you can extract is pretty awesome,” Prabhakar said.
Orbital Sidekick is in its infancy as a company but is making progress. It is currently being funded by friends, family and angel investors. Katz and Prabhakar are currently in talks with venture capitalists.
“We may be a small company right now, but we’re going to grow in the future,” Prabhakar said. Katz is also positive about what lies ahead.
“I’m very excited about where the startup space industry is headed,” he said.
Orbital Sidekick is working toward a significant milestone in early 2018 when it will launch a prototype satellite on either a Space-X or Orbital ATK launch vehicle. The plan is to place it in the “international space system.”
Following that, the goal will be to launch dozens of satellites into orbit by 2020.
By James King