Planet Labs (PL -2.63%) just might be the biggest space company you've never heard of.

To be clear, valued at just $1.5 billion and with revenue of about a tenth of that, Planet isn't nearly as "big" a space-faring giant as Lockheed Martin or Boeing. But with nearly 200 Dove, SuperDove, and SkySat satellites in orbit, Planet Labs owns the biggest Earth-observation satellite constellation in the world.

And now that constellation will get a little bigger.

Protestor holding a sign reading One Planet One Chance.

Image source: Getty Images.

I know what a "Dove" is. What the heck's a "Tanager?"

Roughly 90% of Planet's satellites are of the Dove variety -- tiny 6-kilogram satellites that cost $300,000 each to build and launch, which are collectively capable of snapping 3 million photos from space every day.

Planet uses these satellites to provide intelligence to customers ranging from defense agencies to civil government to mapping companies to agriculture. But last week Planet announced it will develop and launch a new class of satellites, dubbed Tanager,* to supplement its Doves' capability with "hyperspectral" imaging. 

(*Wikipedia informs me that tanagers are colorful, tropical, fruit-eating birds.)

Working in cooperation with, and receiving funding from, the Carbon Mapper Coalition, an organization dedicated to "locating, quantifying, and tracking methane and CO2" emissions to gauge their impact on global warming, Planet says its new Tanager sats will be able to monitor "400 spectral bands." This should permit Planet to see chemical signatures of global warming gasses that are invisible to the naked eye. 

Dollars and cents

All of that sounds like great news for the planet, but what does this Tanager announcement mean for investors in Planet the stock?

That's hard to say. According to Planet's press release, the first two Tanager satellites should launch sometime next year. Reaching out to Planet, I was able to confirm that these Tanagers will not be replacing any of the company's existing fleet of Doves, such that their cost could be considered part of Planet's ongoing "agile" product refresh program, which costs Planet roughly $10 million a year in capital spending, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

These satellites will add a new capability -- and therefore add cost.

As for how much cost, well, Planet did not disclose the cost of the satellites, but assuming they're on par with the cost of the company's Dove sats -- $600,000 for the pair -- this development won't have a huge impact on Planet's profits, especially not if Carbon Mapper Coalition is picking up some of the development cost.

But offsetting the new cost will be the new revenue that Planet can bring in from selling images across Tanager's "hyperspectral" range of coverage. Again, management wasn't specific on this point, but one imagines that environmental regulators will be most interested in paying for this service. Oil and gas companies, too, might pay Planet to monitor methane leaks at their extraction sites, and along their pipelines, to help with their environmental compliance.

So there are revenue streams that investors can expect to flow from Tanager. Indeed, according to the company, the 400 spectral bands that Tanager can monitor open up "a range of applications," says Planet, even beyond methane and CO2 monitoring. Planet anticipates being able to sell Tanager images to various customers in the "agriculture, defense & intelligence, civil government and sustainability" spheres.

The big picture

Long story short, it remains to be seen how much adding Tanager capability will add to Planet's costs -- but it doesn't appear to be a lot. At the same time, it's also hard to say how much Tanager will add to Planet's revenue. But it will probably add something.

Meanwhile, Wall Street isn't yet factoring much of anything coming out of Tanager in the way of improved revenue growth for Planet. Current forecasts basically track what Planet was still telling investors to expect back in late 2021, before the IPO -- i.e., that revenue will grow in the 45%-to-55% range annually through fiscal 2026, by which point Planet will be pulling down just shy of $700 million in annual sales, or five times its current-year projected sales of $131 million.

If Tanager is even moderately successful at expanding Planet's revenue streams, however, you can probably expect that by the time 2026 rolls around, Planet will do even better than that.