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Start-Ups Aim to Conquer Space Market

It was party time at the Planet Labs satellite factory, in an unkempt office in the trendy South of Market neighborhood here.

A man in a blue tuxedo shared pancakes with about two dozen young engineers at the space start-up. The air was filled with the smell of bacon and the voices of Russian and Japanese astronauts. The astronauts communicated over a video hookup to the International Space Station,230 miles above the kitchen, one morning last month.

(Read more: World is not enough:Millionaires bet on space travel)

Mark Evans | Vetta | Getty Images

"Now we're going to push the boundaries," said Chester Gillmore, the company's director of manufacturing. He was referring to his cooking skills, but he could just as well have been talking about his 40-employee company, which has already put dozens of small satellites in space.Once they are connected, they will be able to provide near-constant images of what is going on back on Earth.

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And that, Mr. Gillmore believes, could be the basis of a very good business.

Silicon Valley, not content with changing how retailers, taxi companies and hotels do business, is taking its disruptive ways into outer space. Several young companies with roots in Silicon Valley are trying to elbow their way into a business long dominated by national governments and aeronautics giants like Boeing.

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Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, started by the Tesla founder Elon Musk, is already a contractor for NASA, running supply missions to the International Space Station. Another start-up, Masten Space Systems, with headquarters in Mojave, Calif., is developing rockets designed for unmanned research flights. Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View,Calif., makes satellites similar to those of Planet Labs, though they are significantly larger.

These start-ups have one thing in common: They think they can undercut the old guard with lower prices and smarter thinking.

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