Why Google Sold Satellite Imaging Unit Terra Bella To Planet Labs

Alphabet, Google's parent, wants to focus more on the essentials of location and marketing, and satellite imaging is strictly peripheral.

Google parent Alphabet has sold off its satellite imaging business as the company pulls back on its grand plan to offer internet access across the globe.

The deal involves the sale of the Terra Bella unit to Planet Labs, a startup that offers satellite mapping and imaging to businesses and government entities operating in fields such as agriculture, energy, forestry, and defense intelligence.

The sum of the deal was not disclosed. In a blog post, Planet Labs co-founder and CEO Will Marshall said that his company and Google will enter into a multi-year contract to that will allow Google Earth paid access to imaging data from Planet Labs.

An undisclosed number of Terra Bella staffers will join Planet Labs. Terra Bella was formed following Google’s purchase of  Skybox Imaging for $500 million three years ago.

The unit operates seven relatively small satellites. Google’s initial interest in owning a satellite operation was that it would enable the company to enhance its own mapping capabilities by providing wider internet access via its own orbiting spacecraft.

But over the last year, Google has rethought that ambitious project. For one thing, it was always going to be peripheral to its core mapping business. So in that sense, it would be more cost effective to simply sell Terra Bella off and just lease the information that emanates from it.  

“When we thought about a company that shares Terra Bella’s passion and strengths in high frequency satellite imaging, Planet was a natural home,” said Jen Fitzpatrick, VP of Product and Engineering, Google. “Terra Bella has accomplished a lot in the past two years—including the design and launch of five more satellites. We’re excited to see what’s ahead for Terra Bella, and look forward to being a long-term customer.”