Images of our cities on services such as Google Maps are outstanding. But sometimes they aren't that current because it can take years to update them all. That's one of the reasons why Google spent $500m in 2014 to acquire SkyBox Imaging, a California-based private-sector satellite maker, to help it refresh its maps more frequently.
Unlike Google, most of the firms in the so-called earth-imaging sector don't have the financial muscle to solve problems just by buying another company. However, they can now count on an Italian startup whose ambition is to drastically reduce the price of sending information from space down to earth.
The company in question, Leaf Space wants to help firms that operate so-called microsatellites, that is, satellites weighing less than 100kg (220lb), which are becoming increasingly common in our skies, to communicate with them more often and at a fraction of current costs.
For that purpose the company, which was founded in 2014 by four engineering students from the Politecnico of Milan, is building a network of 20 ground stations around the globe, the first in the world of its type. The infrastructure, the founders think, will pave the way for a crop of new satellite-based services.
"With such a network in place, companies in the earth-imaging business could, for example, monitor an area that was hit by a natural disaster several times a day. In five to 10 years, we could also foresee real-time satellite mapping of specific locations," Jonata Puglia, CEO and co-founder of Leaf Space, tells ZDNet.
GPS radio occultation, a technique using the exchange of signal between a GPS and a low-earth orbit satellite to obtain a real-time measure of the state of the atmosphere, is another application that could get a boost from the startup's idea.
Leaf Space, which is based in Milan, is betting on a trend that is making the population of objects orbiting our planet more diverse.
Until relatively recently, the only satellites sent into space were behemoths the size of a car, weighing several tonnes. But in the past few years they've been joined by smaller machines that cost up to 100 times less.
According to SpaceWorks Enterprises, there are already around 250 micro- or nanosatellites in orbit, a figure that will increase to more than 2,000 in 2020. The size of the related market will grow to $2.52bn, from $889.8m in 2015, says MarketsAndMarkets.
As a result of this miniaturization process, a field traditionally dominated by big government-owned corporations has now made room for medium and relatively small enterprises.
These new firms are trying to make profits by operating the new generation of satellites on behalf of customers that range from companies interested in earth imaging to pharmaceuticals doing experiments in conditions of microgravity.
It is these new operators' still unfulfilled needs that Leaf Space wants to address.
"Although the micro- and nanosatellites market is booming, the offer of related services is still lagging behind. And that creates inefficiencies," Puglia says.
Right now, for instance, a microsatellite operator faces a few sub-optimal choices when it comes to staying in touch with its space systems. Typically, it can either build a low-performance antenna or it can loan a high-performance one from a traditional satellite operator.
"In both cases the costs are significant and the returns underwhelming as, depending on where on earth the antenna is placed and where the satellite is orbiting, the communication might be not so frequent," Puglia explains.
With Leaf Spaces' network in place, microsatellites operators will be able to offer their customers a more constant line of communication with the systems in space in both directions at a convenient price.
By next spring, when the first four ground stations of the network will have been deployed in Italy, Lithuania, Spain, and Ireland, the company says it will be able to guarantee its customers up to six download-upload cycles a day for up to four microsatellites.
The startup, which last summer received €1m ($1.06m) in venture capital funding, has a dual commercial offer in mind: a monthly subscription fee with a guaranteed numbers of daily downloads and uploads, and a model where the customer pays for the amount of data it actually uses.
Giovanni Pandolfi, co-founder of Leaf Space, says his firm expects to use an approach similar to the one used by mobile carriers.
"To make calls with your smartphone, you have to buy traffic from, or subscribe to, someone owning, or having access to, a cellular network," he says.
"That's how we think the microsatellites market should work. Right now, instead, it's just as if smartphone owners had to build their own ground station to talk to somebody."
The company plans to complete the whole network consisting of 20 ground stations by 2018. By then, Leaf Space's founders also hope to have started working on an even more ambitious project: a microsatellites' launcher.
The goal, they say, is in a few years to be able to be the first firm in the market to have the infrastructure to provide a complete package of microsatellite services: from launching the machine into orbit, to operating them at an affordable price.