Satellite startup Albedo seeks to democratize high-resolution orbital imagery, once a closely guarded military secret, leaked a few years ago by Donald Trump.
President Trump, who was in office at the time, tweeted a highly detailed image of a severely damaged Iranian launch pad. Declassified in 2022, the picture validated a theory widely held by many in the commercial Earth observation sector: the US defense was capable of obtaining photographs with an astonishingly precise 10-centimeter resolution.
Topher Haddad, the CEO of Albedo, said in a recent interview that “a few years ago, when Trump tweeted a classified satellite image that showed that we could capture 10-centimeter resolution from space, it sparked all this conversation in the commercial industry on how game-changing it would be to have that resolution commercially.” “I discovered that conversation some time after it occurred and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
At the time, Haddad was working for Lockheed Martin on top-secret remote sensing satellites for the US government. A year later, Haddad co-founded Albedo with engineer Winston Tri and fellow Lockheed alumnus AyJay Lasater. The company’s goal is to overcome the impossibility of providing commercial clients with optical images with a 10-centimeter resolution at previously unheard-of prices.
(Each pixel in a picture with a 10-centimeter resolution covers an area that is 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters on the ground. The largest optical imagery providers available today, in contrast, gather data at a 30-centimeter resolution that is algorithmically enhanced to 15 centimeters.
It’s a tough ask to get such low resolution at a price the market will bear: military satellites, such as the one that took the photo of the Iranian launch pad, are thought to cost billions of dollars apiece. However, Albedo, a Denver-based company, claims it will be able to drastically reduce prices thanks to its satellite bus platform, which runs in very low Earth orbit (VLEO), rather than by making significant advancements in optics. According to Haddad, that’s “where the VLEO technology lives.”
Albedo is aiming for the lesser-known (but properly titled) VLEO, which is between 250 and 450 kilometers, rather than operating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the orbital band around Earth at an altitude of around 2,000 kilometers, like all the other Earth observation players. A satellite bus that is fully optimized for this environment has been designed by Albedo and is almost entirely vertically integrated. This includes the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system; solar arrays; robotics and software for quick satellite repointing and clear images; mission planning; and the concept of operations to guarantee that each satellite remains in orbit for an average of four years.
The final element is crucial. Operating in very low Earth orbit (VLEO) has advantages such as less radiation exposure and less populated areas, but because VLEO objects are closer to Earth, they experience increased atmospheric drag. Surprisingly, though, Albedo’s satellites circumvent this problem by employing an effective electric propulsion system to reduce drag in addition to being extremely dense and hefty.
According to Haddad, the robotics, control, and attitude systems actually present the largest technological obstacles.
“There are three categories: steadiness, which ensures that your picture is clear. Agility is the ability to quickly repoint at various targets that you’re trying to visualize as you’re flying overhead. Furthermore, accuracy—being able to pinpoint your exact location—is linked to both agility and stability and provides the geolocation data that some clients find particularly important, according to Haddad.
“Everything with a resolution of 10 centimeters is just exceedingly difficult by nature, as the angle from a single pixel is less than it would be for a 30-, 50-, or three-meter sensor. Therefore, a 10-centimeter pixel will be significantly more impacted by any given disturbance than a 30-centimeter pixel. Next, you take that and fly in VLEO, where GNC faces an even greater problem due to the satellites’ significantly faster orbit around the Earth and atmospheric torque.
Investors have backed the company’s goal with fervor. Less than a year after graduating from Y Combinator, in September 2022, Albedo declared it had raised a $48 million Series A investment. The business now reports that it has finalized a $35 million Series A-1 funding round at an upwardly revised valuation.
There are many use cases, ranging from military to commerce. Albedo’s backers range from defense tech-focused Shield Capital to Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which reflects the dual-use nature of VLEO technology. Standard Investments, the investing division of the massive industrial conglomerate Standard Industries, headed this most recent tranche. Along with returning investors (such as Shield and Breakthrough) and new investors Booz Allen Ventures, Cubit Capital, and Bill Perkins, the round also included Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, Giant Step Capital, Republic Capital, and other investors. With this most recent round, the business has raised a total of $97 million.
Albedo is now preparing for the first half of 2025 to see the launch of its first commercial satellite. The company’s next objective, according to Haddad, is to launch a block of six satellites that would enable a daily worldwide revisit rate and eventually a full 24-bird constellation that would offer five revisits per day. Haddad declined to provide a schedule for when this might happen.