A tiny satellite filmed a rocket launching 48 more tiny satellites into space

Dove micro satellite nanosat planet labs
A Dove nanosatellite built by Planet Labs next to a coffee mug. Planet Labs

So far, humanity has launched more than 4,000 satellites into orbit above Earth.

That may seem like a lot, but the party is just getting started.

On July 14, a company called Planet Labs launched four dozen tiny satellites into orbit — all at once — and recorded part of the feat from space using a similar tiny satellite.

“For years, we’ve been talking about getting that perfect shot from space of a rocket mid-flight,” Vincent Beukelaers, an aerospace engineer at Planet Labs, wrote in a blog post. “[A]s 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.”

The feat was possible because the cost of launching payloads is shrinking, thanks in part to companies like SpaceX (which hopes to launch 4,425 satellites to provide global high-speed internet).

Advances in electronics have also shrunk the payloads themselves. Pretty soon, satellites small enough to pick up in one hand — often called nanosats or microsatellites — will outnumber the typical car- or bus-sized variety in space.

Here’s how Planet Labs photographed its own launch from space.

The company booked a flight through Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, to launch a “flock” of 48 new satellites using a Soyuz rocket. On July 14, one of Planet Labs’ satellites was flying near the mission’s Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan.

At the moment of launch, the company turned the satellite askew to follow and photograph the rocket as it flew toward space. This series of photos, which are stitched together and sped up, is the result:

The clip shows the Soyuz rocket blasting off the launch pad and climbing toward space. (The moment the satellites were dropped off in orbit wasn’t recorded because that viewing angle wasn’t possible.)

Roscosmos also recorded its rocket launch from the ground. Here’s what that looked like:

Planet Labs now has 190 nanosats in orbit. The company’s ultimate goal is to deploy a fleet of its low-cost “Dove” nanosatellites to provide continuous daily image coverage of the Earth’s surface.

With such imagery, it becomes more possible to track activities of interest to companies, governments, and individuals, like this:

These example images, recorded by Planet Labs’ fleet, show Apple constructing its spaceship campus in California.