Dan Katz
Looking Up
Looking Up
Dan Katz ’08 puts innovative ideas into orbit
AS A PHYSICS & ASTRONOMY STUDENT, Dan Katz ’08 would point the department’s spectral cameras at stars to reveal invisible information about their chemical makeup. It tingled a deep-seated curiosity for the cosmos he’d held since adolescence.

But when he started putting his degree to use building satellite systems for companies like DirecTV and SiriusXM, Katz came to a sudden realization: Most of the countless cameras orbiting Earth today employ “basically the same technology in an iPhone, except with a big lens in front.”

Katz knew from his Bucknell days just how much information was being missed. Hyperspectral sensors, which collect hundreds of snapshots of very narrow bands of visible and infrared light, could reveal when a pipeline was leaking natural gas, where soil had been contaminated by an oil spill, even when an overgrown forest was ripe for a fire. Making that data available quickly could benefit industries from energy to defense to agriculture.

In 2016, Katz and several coworkers formed Orbital Sidekick, a company that collects hyperspectral images for its clients and offers simple tools for interpreting the data, drawing up their first business plans in Katz’s garage. Two years later — and after securing financial backing — they hooked a pilot sensor system to the International Space Station.

The company has found most of its early work monitoring oil and gas pipelines for leaks. These inspections are critical to public safety, environmental protection and the transporter’s bottom line, but are still most commonly done in a very 20th-century fashion, by an “aircraft pilot sticking their head out the window looking for anything suspicious along the pipeline right-of-way,” Katz says.

Katz will launch Orbital Sidekick’s first dedicated satellite this spring and plans to put four more in orbit next year. He hopes to expand to serve new industries, including mining and energy extraction, using his sensors to scan Earth’s surface for invisible clues about what lies beneath. But Katz’s aspirations don’t just extend down below, he’s also looking up — way up.

“If I’m really greedy, I’ll say that in the next five to 10 years I’d love to go interplanetary — hitch a ride with Elon [Musk] and SpaceX to Mars, and look for energy sources there,” he says. — Matt Hughes