Launch of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares/Cygnus combo loaded with cargo for the International Space Station underscores the growing commercialization of the orbiting outpost.

The Jan. 9 launch was the first under Orbital's $1.9 billion, eight-flight Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, which will deliver 20 tons of supplies and scientific gear to the ISS. Among the transported freight was a commercial fleet of tiny Earth-observation satellites built by a well-funded Silicon Valley startup with deep roots in the next-generation idealism of the “New Space” movement.

Planet Labs paid NanoRacks—a pioneer in commercial use of the station (AW&ST July 22, 2013, p. 28)—to distribute its 28 Dove nanosats into orbit from the “porch” of Japan's Kibo laboratory module with the cubesat dispenser it has there. The two companies represent the vanguard of a growing commercial presence that NASA hopes will help defray the cost of operations as the private sector becomes aware of the unique benefits afforded by a manned laboratory in space.

NASA believes that extending ISS's service life will give the private sector more time to find profits in low Earth orbit. When the NanoRacks unit begins deploying the Planet Labs spacecraft, it will be visible confirmation that the movement to expand Earth's economy off the planet is achieving that goal.

Planet Labs' founders—Chris Boshuizen of Australia, Robbie Schingler of the U.S. and Will Marshall of the U.K.—have been working on space projects, including stints at NASA, since they joined the international “space generation” movement in the late 1990s. Their business model has attracted serious financing from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, including a new $52 million round of funding led by billionaire Yuri Milner.

They hope to use revenue-generating applications with the terabyte of rapidly renewed Earth-observation data they expect to generate daily to underwrite satellite support for disaster management, developing-nation agriculture and other apps in keeping with their “do-good” ethos .

“By democratizing this data [it could] become a new global good that will allow people to understand the state of the world as it is now, and therefore make better decisions,” says Schingler.