Thus far in our New Space podcast journey, there are three things we have definitely not discussed: hyperspectral imagery, folded-up telescopes, and Canada.
Luckily, Chris Robson talked with us to right these egregious wrongs. Chris is the CEO and co-founder of Wyvern, an Alberta, Canada-based company that’s filling a unique niche in the new space sector.
“The way we differentiate ourselves from other companies is the resolution of our hyperspectral imagery,” Chris says, “which is accomplished through our proprietary technology utilizing deployable optics.”
That’s a lot of stuff that we’ll get around to parsing and explaining, but the gist is this: Wyvern is sending folded-up telescopes (or telescopes equipped with “deployable optics”) into space to capture high-res spectral Earth observation (EO) data.
And along the way, they might be kickstarting a space sector revolution in Canada.
Wait—What Exactly Is Hyperspectral Imagery?
Wyvern’s website explains that hyperspectral imagery is “An advanced spectral imaging technique that collects hundreds of images at different wavelengths to form 3D data blocks.”
But what’s truly impressive isn’t what hyperspectral imagery is; it’s what the imagery shows.
“You’re trying to see the spectrographic signal – or spectrum – for every pixel on the ground,” Chris explains. “You want to measure that signature very, very finely, and that’s what hyperspectral imagers do. If we can see that signature, we may be able to tell what kind of chemicals or elements are present in that scene or what’s going on in a pixel that you can’t discern with a regular image.”
Identifying the nutrient concentration in a single image pixel of soil. Detecting tiny methane and carbon dioxide levels from a satellite-mounted telescope. Yeah, it’s safe to say that Wyvern’s website is accurate in saying “hyperspectral imaging has the power to detect incredible details invisible to conventional imaging standards.”
And while hyperspectral technology itself isn’t new, its impact in the new space sector hasn’t been fully felt yet. Chris says there’s a reason for that: “With existing satellite technology, there wasn't really a good way to compete in the EO industry with the hyperspectral imagery unless you solved the problem around aperture and satellite buses.”
That’s Where Deployable Optics Comes In
In the days of yore (basically, before Wyvern was founded around five years ago), hyperspectral EO data collection could be cumbersome. “Traditionally what you do is, you build the whole telescope on the ground,” Chris says. “The higher the resolution, the bigger the telescope, and therefore the bigger the bus that you have to fly.”
And then along came Wyvern.
“We take a large telescope, and we fold it up into a small size,” Chris says. “We do that by cutting the primary mirror up into small segments. And we also have a secondary mirror that we fold up against the satellite. So once it's in orbit, the secondary is deployed, the primary is deployed, then the position of each of the mirrors is corrected to better than a hundredth of the width of a human hair.”
The result: hyperspectral EO imagery without the typical accompanying size and weight that can slow operations and pile up costs.
Of course, the development of bleeding-edge technology takes time, and you need to start somewhere. For Wyvern, this means launching a constellation of satellites with more traditional fixed telescope systems to deliver hyperspectral data, fast.
After Wyvern launches its first satellites this year, the plan is to launch many more to achieve its ultimate goal of capturing daily hyperspectral images of the entire globe: “A minimum of 27” satellites,” Chris says, but “probably a lot more than 27.”
The Earthbound Uses of Hyperspectral EO
All this whiz-bang technology isn’t just for show: It has practical---and potentially significant--- applications for Wyvern’s data clients, both current and future. The trick, though, was trying to narrow down which applications would be most useful—and profitable.
“The first thing we did,” Chris says, “is we spoke to something like 50 potential customers just to figure out what their needs were—where they weren't being served, some of the weaknesses in the industry.”
Using that information, Wyvern set its focus on three main applications:
- Detecting potential problems early
- Replacing in-person measurement-taking
- Providing holistic measurements of large operations or sites
Clients that use Wyvern’s EO data can range from oil and gas companies monitoring emissions, to forestry services detecting disease and fires, to agencies that are watching out for natural disasters. Oh, and “There’s a ton of military applications,” Chris says.
But the application Chris talks about most in this podcast episode is farming. Armed with hyperspectral data that can identify, say, the percentage of nitrogen in a farm’s soil, farmers can make more precise and strategic decisions: “If you know those things, you can take the data and you can determine … how much fertilizer I need to buy for this growing season to replenish the soil.
“The impact is, either you’re saving money through efficiency or you’re producing more because you’re taking the right action at the right time. You see increases in crop yield. You see less spending on fertilizer and water.”
“Being able to identify these … allows a farmer to get an idea of what’s going on with their crop that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do unless you circumvent your field and walk between the rows,” Chris says.
It’s a point of pride for Chris that Wyvern is a Canadian company. Canadian companies are a rarity in the space sector, but Chris is hoping to change that.
“My prospects as a young mechanical engineer were: Go and work for an oil and gas company,” Chris says. But then he saw a space shuttle launch, “and at that point I said, ‘You know what? Screw this; I’m going to work in the space industry.’”
Usually, this would mean leaving his home and going to a more traditional space-industry hub—possibly in the United States. But Chris saw an opportunity.
“We are building a space industry here,” he says. “Alberta has a lot of unique characteristics that are contributing positively to Wyvern’s development, and the people who work here are well-equipped to transform the space industry. It's been incredible to give everybody, including myself, the chance to live and work in Alberta and also to do what they love.”
“I'm hoping that by building Wyvern I'm going to be building a larger space ecosystem in Canada and Alberta.”