Paul Brinkmann, Orlando Sentinel

MERRITT ISLAND — An emerging manufacturing hub for satellites and rockets near Kennedy Space Center is already getting a boost from a new player called EarthNow that’s planning to build many more satellites there.

A startup based in Seattle, EarthNow says it will use Oneweb’s new plant on Merritt Island to build a network of several hundred camera satellites to monitor the Earth “in real time.”

Oneweb, which has yet to start production at the plant, plans to build at least 900 satellites for its space-based global communication network.

To imagine EarthNow, picture Google maps or similar satellite photos – but with the ability to see what the world looks like live and potentially check on whether strange vehicles were parked on your property or for any forest fires breaking out nearby.

The venture is backed by some of the same people backing Oneweb, including Airbus, SoftBank, and entrepreneur Greg Wyler – with the significant addition of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The announcement that such a well-funded company will manufacture in Florida is a big win for the Space Coast, officials said.

“Anyone that is manufacturing satellites or components here, they’re only going to see expansion,” said Mark Sutton, production manager at RUAG Space in Titusville, which supplies components for satellites. “There are lots of opportunities. EarthNow will be a huge boost, helping to supply critical mass and grow the who support network for the space industry.”

OneWeb says it has perfected a process to build small satellites rapidly. Their satellites will be the size of a small apartment-sized refrigerator. In the past many communication satellites have been closer in size to a school bus.

EarthNow’s network would be aimed at detecting emergencies, disasters, or environmental crises around the globe as they happen.

“We want to connect you visually with Earth in real-time,” said Russell Hannigan, EarthNow CEO. “We believe the ability to see and understand the Earth live and unfiltered will help all of us better appreciate and ultimately care for our one and only home.”

Initially, EarthNow will offer commercial video and “intelligent vision services” to a range of governments and other customers. Applications could include catching illegal fishing in the act, watching hurricanes and typhoons as they evolve, detecting forest fires the moment they start, watching volcanoes the instant they start to erupt, assisting the news media in telling stories from around the world, tracking large whales as they migrate, providing on-demand data about crop health and observing war zones around the world.

EarthNow, a project spun out from Intellectual Ventures, a think tank and intellectual property company also based in Seattle, also plans to create “live Earth video” apps that can be accessed instantly from a smartphone or tablet.

“With EarthNow, we will all become virtual astronauts,” Hannigan said.

Small satellites are a big new trend in commercial space operations. Space companies such as SpaceX, Oneweb, EarthNow and York Space Systems have plans to launch new constellations of small spacecraft numbering in the tens of thousands. OneWeb is planning to start its launches in 2019, reserving five liftoffs with Blue Origin, its new neighbor in the Exploration Park business center.

Such huge networks of small satellites could provide leaps forward in the quality of global communication, but there are also big concerns about privacy and security.

“While they are certainly promising to revolutionize business and economic intelligence as never before, they also raise concerns about space security,” said Saadia M. Pekkanen, a professor of international studies at University of Washington, who has written books about emerging technologies like small satellites.

Small satellites will “pose challenges for military operations and strategy, of course. But it will also affect the privacy and lives of ordinary people going about their days,” Pekkanen said because of their ability to see such great detail.

Space Florida, the state’s marketing and economic development agency for space, is actively courting more small satellite companies to locate near KSC, and to launch from Cape Canaveral spaceport, said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external communications.

“Northern California and Washington State are also big players in this industry, but we’re in a good position to compete now,” Ketcham said.

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