“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a cagier bunch who obfuscate and hide the true pricing of what they’re selling until the very last minute when the customer says, ‘Uncle’.”
Matt Tirman, Satellogic chief commercial officer
Pricing transparency is working for Ursa Space Systems. After most trade shows or conferences, a single customer signs up for Ursa’s synthetic aperture radar data and analytics platform.
Since revealing the price of monthly subscriptions in early March at the Defense Geospatial Intelligence conference in London, 20 new customers have signed up for trials.
On the AWS Marketplace, “we host a number of dashboards where users
can log in and track weekly global crude oil changes or see the activity across dozens of auto manufacturing plants,” said Adam Maher, CEO of Ithaca, New York-based Ursa Space. “These are monthly or yearly subscriptions. For our customers, having this transparency and consistency takes the guesswork out of accessing geospatial data.”
Within the space sector, long known for opaque pricing, transparency is
gaining traction. While still far from the norm, Satellogic, SpaceX, Umbra and Ursa Space are among the companies publishing prices for space-related goods and services.
“Transparent pricing is a sign of a growing industry of standardized
services versus a cottage industry of bespoke work,” Steve Jurvetson, Future Ventures founder and managing director, said by email. “Instead of opaque, cost-plus government contracts, a thriving commercial market has quoted prices and delivery times for each layer
of the stack, from subcomponents to managed services.”
Over a decade ago, SpaceX helped start the trend by advertising $57 million Falcon 9 launches.
“Published low prices have encouraged a whole generation of startups to enter the market that might not have otherwise known what was possible,” said Jurvetson, an early SpaceX and Planet investor, and a member of the SpaceX board of directors. “For example, in the
early days of Planet, low-cost launch futures helped them conceptualize a business model of agile aerospace for a constantly refreshing constellation of Earth-observation satellites.”
Another early adopter of transparent pricing was York Space Systems.
In 2019, the Denver startup attracted attention by advertising three-axis stabilized S-class satellites for $1.2 million.
“Setting the pricing does give the customer a zip code of where you
are relative to other folks,” said Dirk Wallinger, York Space Systems CEO
and president. “The reality is a complete mission cost varies quite a bit
depending on the customer and their program-management approach, but at least the folks know where you’re starting.”
EARTH OBSERVATION MARKET
At the moment, transparent pricing is most noticeable in the Earth-observation sector.
Early this year, Satellogic began advertising dishwasher-size Earth-imaging satellites for $10 million or less including launch, mission operations and customer support. Revealing the price signals to potential customers that Satellogic “can be incredibly competitive,” said Matt Tirman, Satellogic chief commercial officer. That’s particularly important “for countries that don’t have the budget of the European Union, NATO or the United States,” he added.
Publishing satellite prices was a natural step for South America-based
Satellogic, a firm known for disclosing imagery prices. Satellogic offers imagery of a 50-square-kilometer area for $400. Rush orders and priority tasking cost more.
“The biggest failing that we’ve had as a community up and down the value chain from geospatial analytics to Earth-observation data is that I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a cagier bunch who obfuscate and hide the true pricing of what they’re selling until the very last minute when the customer says, ‘Uncle’,” Tirman said.
BUYING IMAGERY ONLINE
Satellogic announced a partnership March 28 with SkyFi, a startup established in 2021 with the goal of making Earth imagery more accessible. SkyFi customers can buy imagery and task Earth-observation satellites from dozens of companies including Albedo, Array Labs, Picterra, Pixxel, Satellite Vu, Satellogic, SI Imaging Services, Umbra and Wyvern.
For SkyFi, pricing transparency is just part of the equation. The overall
goal is to encourage people to identify new applications for satellite imagery by making it affordable and accessible.
“The way to bring in customers is to treat them like customers,” said Marc Horowitz, chief operations officer of Austin, Texas-based
SkyFi. “It’s about the pricing upfront and making a user experience and interfaces that are simpler.”
Other online stores, like Arlula, SkyWatch, Soar.Earth and Up42, sell imagery as well.
“There’s a growing list of marketplaces that have managed to wrangle standard public pricing out of their partners,” said Joe Morrison, commercial experience vice president for Umbra, a Santa Barbara, California-based SAR satellite operator. “Not just satellite imagery, aerial
imagery and other types of data too.”
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Within the Earth-observation sector, transparent pricing isn’t embraced by everyone.
For Capella Space, a San Francisco-based firm that delivers SAR data
primarily to government customers, “it’s hard to set the pricing for all the variations of the product features,” said Payam Banazadeh, Capella founder and CEO. “It’s not just the imagery specifications, it’s how you want it delivered. There’s are like five variations of just that one question. It’s situational and depends on the context.”
Even so, Banazadeh is aware of competitors adopting transparent pricing and is “super curious to see how that works out,” he said at the Satellite 2023 conference in Washington. “Maybe we can learn something from them.”
Another issue that crops up with transparency is the public nature of
price hikes. Citing inflation, SpaceX announced price increases last year for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets as well as Starlink broadband and smallsat rideshare services.
“If you do raise the price, there’s logistics involved like having a grace period and giving customers ample time to prepare,” Morrison said.
LIKE BUYING A CAR?
In contrast to Capella, Umbra is building its SAR business around technology that supports transparent pricing and permissive satellite data licenses.
Umbra microsatellites with 10-square-meter parabolic mesh antennas can capture scores of images during every pass over a high demand area like an oil field in the Middle East.
“What it boils down to is with an abundance of supply, which we
have, we can increase demand,” said Umbra co-founder Gabe Dominocielo. “We can increase demand by lowering prices.”
And by transparent pricing, Umbra does not mean a starting point for
“We don’t want it to become like buying a car, where the pricing is
posted but it’s a fake price,” Morrison said. “Customers hate the experience of negotiating pricing because it feels unfair and adds a tremendous amount of time to any transaction.”
Instead, Umbra customers can click on a map to order SAR satellite
imagery of a specific location within a time frame.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Morrison said. “Some event like a hurricane is headed toward the coast of Florida. I need before and after images.”
In spite of increasing transparency, buying Earth imagery from the AWS
marketplace or another vendor is slightly more complicated than buying shoes or socks online. Like many space-related products, Earth imagery falls under government export regulations.
To gain entry to U.S.-based Earth-imagery platforms, companies must verify the identities of potential customers. People from Iran, North Korea, Russia or other sanctioned countries will not be admitted.
“We have to know who you are,” Dominocielo said.
Verified customers gain access to a wealth of Earth imagery and data.
“Once you’re on our platform, you can see the full archive from a whole
bunch of different companies,” Maher said. “You can search an area and it’ll tell you the price to buy the image.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.