Entrepreneur blasting off into orbit

The daily business of outer space, long the exclusive province of NASA, has become a wide-open field for entrepreneurship. Millions of investment dollars are pushing commerce into orbit.

A fleet of toaster-sized satellites hitch rides on any rocket headed into space.

"It's great," said Will Marshall, a former NASA scientist and CEO of Planet Labs. "We ask the astronauts to throw our satellites out the window and they do."

The satellites, called "doves," cruise in low-Earth orbit, around 400 miles up. Their mission is ambitious: to take a picture of every place on earth every single day.

"We have launches 87 satellites to date, which is the largest constellation in human history," said Marshall.

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The earthly office, in San Francisco, looks like any other tech company. "In many ways, we are closer to a Silicon Valley startup than a big aerospace company," said Marshall.

Marshall launched Planet Labs with two other former NASA scientists, turning their focus from the cosmos back down to earth.

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Will Marshall, a former NASA scientist, and CEO of Planet Labs is launching into the burgeoning field of space entreprneurship. CBS News

"We can track deforestation, we can track the ice caps melting. In general, it is very helpful for climate change," said Marshall. "We can help people respond to natural disasters like earthquakes and floods."

Planet Lab's images, taken before and after the recent earthquake in Nepal, revealed two remote towns that no one knew existed. Aid workers sent in medical assistance and supplies.

"That was a fantastic day," he said. "It was the first time our data actually helped people in the real world. Not just some sort of Silicon Valley bubble of hypothetical, you know."

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Planet Labs also intends to make money selling data to commercial clients -- images that track daily agricultural production around the world, mining output, even the movement of ships at sea.

But it is still a dangerous business.

"It's a risky business going into space, which we've experienced. We've had 10 launches, two of which exploded," said Marshall. "One was (the) Antares rocket and one was the SpaceX rocket. We had 26 satellites on one and six satellites on the other and yeah, that sent our satellites to smithereens."

Anticipating losses, Planet Lab continuously builds new "doves" right on the premises and plans to have its full system in orbit by next year.

"I think there are a lot of business opportunities and we're seeing this burgeoning field of commercial companies in space," Marshall said. "I would call it a bit of a space renaissance."

High hopes for a young company where the sky's the limit.