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News > Alumni news > Interview with Will Marshall (Class of 1996), ground-breaking space scientist and CEO of Planet

Interview with Will Marshall (Class of 1996), ground-breaking space scientist and CEO of Planet

Will, who was part of the NASA team that found water on the moon, has gone on to co-found a visionary company, Planet. He tells us about his journey from TWGSB to his career as a space scientist.
23 Mar 2023
Written by Lucy Tipler
Alumni news
Will Marshall & team began inventing these small satellites from a garage in California
Will Marshall & team began inventing these small satellites from a garage in California

We have such amazing alumni from TWGSB with incredibly diverse and interesting careers.

One of our most inspirational must be Will Marshall (TWGSB  89–96) who, having worked for NASA, has gone on to become CEO of an impressive and visionary company called Planet, which he co-founded in 2010. With a postdoc from Harvard University and a PhD in Physics from the University of Oxford, Will has described himself in the past as a 'quantum physicist-cum-space scientist in search of world peace and harmony'.

Will and his fellow co-founder scientists considered there was a problem with the expense and size of satellites being built by NASA, which prompted them to want to change the way things were done. While recognising and appreciating these exquisite systems, they thought it needn't take years and cost millions of pounds for the types of satellites they were hoping to build, only for the imagery captured to be out of date by the time the data reached Earth. They decided to set up their own company to build inexpensive and more compact satellites, which could be manufactured in bulk, called CubeSats. They did all this from a garage in California! Planet launched two demonstration CubeSats, Dove 1 and Dove 2, in April 2013.

The company has so far sent over 500 miniaturised satellites into low orbit. Today, 149 satellites continually photograph the 57.3 million square miles of Earth’s land mass. Planet’s flock are called ‘Doves’ (the name purposefully chosen to connect with peaceful missions) and are no bigger than 10 by 10 by 30 centimetres. They circle the globe each day, sending back high-resolution images of the Earth. The idea is to make global change visible so that organisations can apply the fresh data being sent back to improve climate monitoring, agricultural crop yield prediction, urban planning and disaster response.

Planet was able to track the wild fires in Chile to assist the government with the relief effort. Credit: Planet

The company has revolutionised the earth observation industry with the highest-frequency satellite data commercially available to a myriad of industries including agriculture, forestry, mapping and governments. 

Recent photo of the earthquake that struck Turkey, Planet's data helping the rescue and planning. Credit: Planet

'If you look at all the big problems facing the world, the challenges are basically around things like solving poverty, ending hunger, giving everyone access to clean water, and stopping climate change and deforestation. With Earth imaging – and particularly this idea of having many more satellites up there to image the entire Earth every day – we thought we could demonstrably help tackle those global challenges.'

Founding team of Planet in garage in California, 2012. Credit: Planet

Despite his very busy schedule flying all over the world being interviewed by the global media and delivering TED talks, Will kindly managed to fit TWGSB in and gave us a full 30-minute interview.

Will started secondary school at The New Beacon but his parents realised he was getting bored in the classes so he sat the entrance exam and was moved to join TWGSB halfway through his first year.  

Here is the interview in full and you can watch it below also. Enjoy!

What, if any, aspects of your experiences at TWGSB most influenced your career and life choices?

I was interested in science and astronomy since I was seven and had saved up for my first pair of binoculars from an early age.  One trigger I really remember was how I got really inspired by a physics teacher, Paul Baines, during my A Levels who focused entirely on Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which had just come out. We would ask questions like, ‘Why does a black hole do this…?’ and he would say ‘I don’t know’ but then we would work it out on the blackboard together and I thought that was so amazing that you could go from not knowing to discovering how by working it out!  About five years ago I got in touch with him in his retirement, which was great to reconnect.

Another very inspiring teacher was Nick Tull, Head of CDT.  I had said I was going to build a telescope for my A Level CDT project and they both said, ‘Ok, off you go!’ It wasn’t the standard option students selected, which was usually to build something practical like a rabbit hutch or something, but they were very accepting of my goals. It was quite complex involving optics and other complexities, but they helped me with a few calculations and things.

I remember one day I turned up to school and Nick Tull said, ‘Come on we’re going on a trip. We are going to see Patrick Moore!’  Now, I had studied and followed Patrick Moore since I was little, I had read every single book he had written and he was my absolute idol.

Will with Sir Patrick Moore and the telescope he built during his A Levels

I guess they must have written to him and said, ‘Look we have a student here who has built a real telescope’ and he wanted to meet me.  Just Nick Tull and I went on the school bus to see Patrick – he examined the telescope I had made and he showed me around all these other telescopes that he had around which was amazing to me.  He wrote on his typewriter a little report for me about the one I had built. I still have the letter somewhere!  Of course, I got an A in that class!

I ended up becoming very good friends with Patrick – he brought me to the Sky At Night programme at the BBC in London (that was the longest running programme with the same presenter in the history of TV – it was on once a month for 40 years with him presenting). This was a dream come true and he helped advise me where to apply for university and many other things during my career. Sadly, he’s passed away now in 2012.

Where did you go to university?

I went to Leicester for my undergraduate course and studied Physics and Space Science Technology as it was the best space course in the UK really. After that I did my PhD at Oxford as I was interested in theoretical physics (like Stephen Hawking’s area as well as the space stuff) where I went more into the theoretical side.  I was very lucky as I had two fantastic supervisors. Roger Penrose is quite a famous mathematician – and won the Nobel prize in Physics in 2020 for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.

[author’s note: According to Wikipedia, Penrose is regarded as one of the greatest living physicists, mathematicians and scientists, and is particularly noted for the breadth and depth of his work in both natural and formal sciences.]

My other supervisor Dirk Baumister was the one who did those experiments for which his supervisor just won the Nobel prize last year for Quantum Mechanical Experiments to test quantum tunnelling – like Star Trek but in reality. 

Dirk moved out to Santa Barbara during my PhD so as I was working with him more during that time, I went out there, too, for the latter half of my PhD – and I got stuck here! I would not have predicted I would end up living in America!  The only things I thought were cool about America were NASA and REM (I was a big fan) but now I have many other things I like about America.  I did a couple of postdoctorates here and then worked at NASA and then started Planet!

What has been the most successful and rewarding part/pivotal moment of your professional life? What did you achieve/learn?

I’m very proud of the project we did at NASA, which looked for and found water on the moon. It was extremely exciting at the time – called LCROSS. We sent the probe to the moon despite everyone having said there was no water on the moon – 73 previous missions had failed as they were looking in the wrong place and we landed the probe in the South Pole of the moon and found boat loads of water! 

We reported it back to the scientific community and ended up on the front cover of Science Magazine – one of the two preeminent science magazines where academic scientists write their papers, so it was a really big deal for us.

The headline was: 'Water found on the Moon' and I also wrote a New York Times op-ed on the subject about the relevance of finding water on the moon and the effect that could have on exploration. Settlement of the moon is much easier now that we know there is water there as it’s the most important consumable that we need as humans, and we can split it into hydrogen and oxygen to get fuel and oxygen to breathe as well. We also found CO2which makes settlement much, much easier than we thought prior to this mission. So that was pretty cool!

At NASA I launched some mobile phones into space to demonstrate the question, ‘Why are we spending $500m on a spacecraft when a small gadget in your pocket for $500 can do most of what a spacecraft does these days?’ They have a radio, hard drives, accelerometers, all this stuff in this amazing little device.  In the 60s/70s we would have called it a spacecraft. In fact it's more powerful in many ways.  So, we launched some into space. I hadn’t informed my bosses at NASA at the time so almost got fired for it, but we got through that and that’s sort of what led to Planet.  That’s what led us to thinking how can we do this in a totally different way.  We wanted to do it more for humanitarian and commercial reasons than science (which is what NASA is about) and we realised that we could really help the world significantly if we could get more regular imagery and if we could get lots of little satellites. We pioneered much smaller satellites so ‘PhoneSat’ project, as we called it, was an important moment in my career.

Planet deployment Dove 1. Credit: NASA

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self or current students based on your own experiences?

Do something to impact the world – don’t do something for money.  Your career choices really matter. People say ‘I’m just going to do this for a year or two…. work for some bank or something……. I’ll make enough money and then I’ll go and do X’ – but then 20 years later they have a mid-life crisis and find they are still doing banking.  They got stuck in it and never even wanted to do banking!

Those first choices really matter – vote with your feet from the get-go, otherwise you get stuck in the wrong career that you didn’t want to have.  There are lots of noble professions to help the world – teaching is one of them, science might be another. Apply yourself to something that is meaningful and impacts the world. Don’t do it for the money.

What characteristics or attributes did TWGSB bring out in you, and how?

Scientific curiosity, partly because of this interaction with Paul Baines as mentioned above, but not solely due to that.  Intrigue about the world.

Questions from our TWGSB Science students:

What advice would you give someone looking to get into Silicon Valley/NASA?

Study maths, science and computer science – they will matter for this career. It will take a lot of study to get to that place. The other thing is to think outside the box – think creatively:  'Here’s a world problem, I think we can solve it, why hasn’t anyone solved it? Etc…'

What do you like most about running your own company?

There are pros and cons. You get to steer the direction of the business and if I have a big idea, most of the time it can’t be done, because of the limitations of what’s possible, but occasionally if it’s something real then we can get people to go and do it and make it happen, and have the ability to impact the world with what we are doing.

Our students are going to be building their own satellite as part of the CanSat project run by ESA and the following questions link to this project:

What would you say is the most useful thing that satellites currently do?

Well, I would obviously say observation, but I’m extremely biased! Lots of things – navigation services like GPS, communications services like Starlink, Earth observation like we do. There are also things that the military do that you can also consider useful depending on your bias, for example intelligence: spy satellites, spying on people’s communications, early warning of missile attack. If anyone launches a missile we know where it's coming from and we can defend countries from attack so there are various different things that satellites do. These are the main ones.

Is there another gap in the market? What would you suggest for our team to focus on for their chosen mission (we will likely be doing a data collection project instead of photos)?

I think there is a green field of opportunity with satellites – a few ideas come to mind.

No one has really done good internet detection. We have all these devices across the world and, for example, if we wanted to measure nature across the Amazon – with a little phone you could record the sounds and find out the bio diversity or a sensor that measures the temperature/humidity, but how do you get that data back if you are in the middle of the Amazon with no cell reception? There are billions of devices around the planet and yet no universal foolproof way of getting that data back if you don’t have access to signal. Internet connectivity – some people are working on that but no one has cracked it yet. 

Planet's data can help track deforestation in Uruguay. Credit: Planet

Better GPS – often it doesn’t work in cities with tall buildings as GPS signal bounces off the tall buildings and then your phone thinks you are three blocks down the road, so how do you coordinate that?  You could have lots of little satellites rather than a few big ones, which could help you triangulate to course-correct that.

A harder couple of ideas are a synthetic aperture RADAR equivalent of what we are doing for scanning the earth that can see through the clouds using RADAR (which was invented in England during WWII incidentally). Also Quantum key distribution (back to my PhD) in space. Establish 100% secure communications around the world – no one’s ever done that. The last two are pretty hard.  You can’t do that in a CanSat competition. The first two ideas you could do some demonstrations on.

What factors do we need to take into consideration for launch/common problems you faced when starting out?

Check it will survive the launch environment, the vacuum, the temperature of the environment in space, the big three things – it will be a rough ride. The temperature variation can be from minus 20 degrees centigrade to plus 40 degrees centigrade every 45 minutes. Making that switch is thermally very stressful. Typically for very small things for a CanSat it’s not too hard, but you need to test those things and check it works before you put it up there – that screws don’t fall out with the vibrations of the launch or the thing still works as it rapidly changes temperature. Again, smart phones are quite good at this – actually they work in a vacuum as they are made in a vacuum so it’s like going back to the womb. They can survive shocks too – they are designed to be dropped on the floor. Also put it into a known box that launch providers are ok with and don’t forget to get radio frequency licences too!

Our project will be using C++ and Python. What programming language do you find most useful for your work? Is there a particularly popular choice?

I don’t programme very much – I never did, which might be surprising to the students.  I was in physics so I was writing equations. I did a little bit in FORTRAN – but both C++ and Python are used – but embarrassingly I wouldn’t know which is the dominant one in our code base. On the spacecraft we have software as well as software on the ground, which processes all the data, and we have hundreds of team members who are doing that work, so it’s a super important part of our work.  We have two engineering divisions at Planet – the one that’s building the spacecraft and one that’s doing the software.

So, the first one designs the spacecraft, builds the spacecraft, builds the ground stations all over the world and designs the mission control centres that control the satellites and say who should do what when, when to take a picture and download it. All that has to work together.

And when the data gets down to the cloud data centres, then the software engineering team processes the data to stitch it to the earths’ surface, calibrates it radiometrically and builds a platform for people to be able to access the data with APIs and graphical user interfaces to leverage the data. On top of that you have all the analytics using machine learning and AI to figure what’s going on in the data, for example, are there new roads or trees being chopped down?

That’s the frontier of where we are going now – Artificial Intelligence plus Planet’s data is allowing us to search the planet for what’s going on every day.  This gives us amazing capability that’s useful for everything from the earthquake in Turkey two weeks ago, to helping Ukraine feed the people of the world during their crisis by monitoring the agriculture. 

Will Marshall, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you and please do look us up when you next visit the UK. I know our community would be absolutely delighted if you would come and do a talk for us or a Q & A sometime. Thank you. 

Further interviews with Will found here:

NPR Article here

TED Talks here

If you would like to comment on this fantastic achievement please do so below, we will ensure Will receives them. 

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