Every day at around 10:30 a.m., nearly 40 orbiting satellites pass over the Earth’s equator, taking photos. Cornfields in Brazil. Drilling rigs off the coast of Florida. Parking lots in Kuala Lumpur.
These images are beamed down from the sky and analyzed for information. How many oil tankers are in the North Sea? How much unused corn is being moved into Chinese warehouses? How many people are at Disney World?
The insights gleaned from these images are then transferred to clients — governments, nonprofits, and corporations — that once paid tens of thousands of dollars to acquire fresh imagery and do the analysis themselves. The data will be used to move markets, defend borders, measure poverty, track illegal fishing, and more.
"Eventually, the market responds to the physical world. And if you want to actually get ahead of that, you need to know what's going on in the physical world," said James Crawford, founder and CEO of the satellite data startup Orbital Insight.
The original space race was about launching a single satellite. Now the goal is to launch hundreds; legions of tiny imaging satellites taking snapshots of every inch of the planet every day, and in some cases, at multiple times of day.
This sort of omniscience is the satellite industry's Holy Grail, but it’s still a long way off. Right now, the aerial picture of the world on any given day is like an incomplete puzzle, with a few spots put together but most of the pieces still in the box. There just aren't enough satellites to, quite literally, go around.
At least, not yet.
A satellite is anything, natural or man-made, that orbits a planet or a star. We use satellites for many things, including GPS, television broadcasts, communication, and for taking pictures of faraway galaxies.
We also use satellites to collect data by measuring energy that is reflected off the Earth. This technique is referred to as "remote sensing," and it can capture everything from the photos you see in Google Maps, to infrared images that track forest fires using heat.
Since the early 1990s, the remote sensing industry has been dominated by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, along with a handful of satellite mega-companies that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue and prefer to merge with each other rather than compete.
These companies built massive satellites on multi-year time frames and launched them one at a time. "Everyone was building Battlestar Galacticas," said Scott Herman, a vice president at satellite startup BlackSky.
That's no longer the case. Powerful satellites are now the size of shoeboxes. The term of art is "nanosatellite," or "nanosat," which refers to an artificial satellite with a wet mass between 2.2 and 22 pounds.
The global market for commercial "Earth observation" data is expected to hit $3.5 billion by 2024, according to space market research firm Euroconsult.
Technology-focused investors are pouring money into Earth observation, figuring that cheaper, more agile satellite development coupled with gains in image-analyzing software will open up unprecedented opportunity.
The nanosats collecting the data are being built by a new crop of companies with sci-fi names like BlackSky, Planet, and Terra Bella (acquired by Google in 2014) that have more in common with Silicon Valley than the defense industry.
What exactly can one do with this data? The industry says the full potential is still being explored, but there are already many use cases.
Satellite images can be used by automotive manufacturers to monitor the flow of inventory in and out of a rival’s warehouses. They can be used by insurance companies to investigate claims of hailstorm damage. They can be used by ridehailing services like Uber to figure out the safest pick-up and drop-off locations.
Orbital Insight even claims to be able to measure oil inventory based on the angle of the shadows cast on the floating lids of tanks and forecast national retail store sales based on the number of cars in the parking lots of Wal-Mart and its competitors.
And, of course, weather, military, and government surveillance — services on which the satellite industry was founded — are still in high demand.
Satellites never sleep
Current satellites are put into so-called sun-synchronous orbits, in which they travel from pole to pole while the Earth rotates underneath. This means they float over the same spots at around the same time each day. "We have a running joke that you've never seen a satellite picture of the Super Bowl, because the Super Bowl happens at 5 o'clock in the evening," said Herman.
In other words, if I wanted to pull a photo of Super Bowl 50, there's a good chance that imagery won't be available because I didn't explicitly task a satellite to be pointing at Levi's Stadium on the evening of Feb. 7, 2016 — although, apparently, North Korea did.
There are about 1,300 satellites orbiting Earth, per aerospace and defense consultancy The Tauri Group, if you count everything from defense and communications to GPS.
In the future, flocks of satellites will simply capture imagery of everything, at all times. To make this sort of thing possible, you need lots of satellites spread evenly around the planet, in a formation often referred to as a constellation. While current Earth observation satellites have to be tasked to target a particular location, the idea is that constellations will continuously capture imagery of whatever’s below them, whether it’s needed or not.
The remote sensing industry will put another 600-plus into orbit by 2020, if everything goes according to plan. BlackSky launched its first satellite in September and expects to launch another five satellites by the end of 2017, with a goal of reaching 60 by 2020. Terra Bella launched another four satellites last month — for a total of seven — while a company called Urthecast, which is best known for putting live video cameras on the International Space Station, has a pair of constellations planned with 24 satellites combined.
Even industry stalwart DigitalGlobe — which has traditionally operated only a handful of very expensive, very high-resolution satellites — is working on a new small satellite constellation of its own, with six satellites announced so far.
Planet is by far the farthest ahead in the race to blanket the Earth. Its constellation has over 60 satellites, which it calls Doves, that orbit one after the other in sets of rings around the Earth. These satellites take 300,000 images a day, Planet says. In September, it imaged more than 90 percent of the Earth's landmass. (It’s worth noting that constellations are not merely limited to image gathering; companies such as SpaceX are working on constellations that aim to deliver cheaper and more reliable internet access, too.)
The goal for pretty much everyone is to eventually hit a daily revisit rate or better — at the very least, for the most populous places on the planet, if not the whole thing. Planet says it's approaching sub-weekly revisit rates, with an eventual goal to image the whole Earth every day, while BlackSky intends to revisit most populated areas every 15-45 minutes.
Although some current generation satellites can, at times, hit daily revisit rates for a handful of areas, "There's not this idea of persistent monitoring yet," said Herman. "And that's what's going to change."
Manholes and mailboxes
In October, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced a contract with Planet for a "global imagery refresh every 15 days of most of Earth’s landmass."
This data will be included in the National System for Geospatial Intelligence, the system used by the US intelligence community, Defense Department, and military navigation.
Deals such as this will no doubt face increasing scrutiny as image resolution improves and the number of people who have access to higher-quality imagery — sold at more affordable prices — continues to increase.
The US had restrictions on satellite images meant to protect privacy, but other countries that lacked similar laws were launching and operating satellites that were technologically superior. The industry pushed for lighter regulations, citing the foreign competition. In 2014, the US government lifted restrictions on satellite companies selling color imagery up to 1 meter in resolution — rules which hadn’t been updated since the mid-1990s, when satellites were less technologically advanced and national security was of greater concern. That's good enough to discern individual cars and "manholes and mailboxes," as DigitalGlobe boasted at the time.
One meter is about the limit of what BlackSky and Terra Bella’s satellites are capable of but just a fraction of what’s possible. DigitalGlobe already operates satellites that are capable of even higher resolutions — up to 0.31 meters in black and white — and it’s dizzying to imagine the potential applications when such satellites are capable of identifying surveillance targets’ license plates or the faces of Chinese dissidents in a crowd.
Today’s commercially available satellite imagery isn’t quite there — but technologists and academics are already anticipating such a world.
In 2014, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted in a report that privacy concerns "are likely to grow" as more commercial satellite imaging companies such as Terra Bella emerge. In the book Evidence from Earth Observation Satellites: Emerging Legal Issues, edited by researchers Ray Purdy and Denise Leung, Purdy writes that that privacy could become a concern as images get more detailed and are collected with greater frequency.
However, he adds, "the question of how much privacy people are entitled to in relation to satellite monitoring appears presently untested in courts across the world." Kevin Pomfret, who is the executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy, wrote in an email that he, too, is “not familiar with any privacy laws or regulations in the world that pertain to commercial remote sensing.”
When those conversations do begin to happen, one likely question will be how the collection of satellite imagery differs from, say, imagery captured from unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for which there are presently no privacy-specific US laws.
And as with drones, there are already hints at an increasingly consumer-facing future. A mobile app for Android and iPhone called SpyMeSat makes it extremely easy to purchase archival imagery and even task satellites with capturing new data (though, at prices ranging from $500 to $1,600 depending on the desired imaging area, it doesn’t come cheap). And at BlackSky, though images will primarily be sold by subscription, Herman said the company has talked about supporting a pay-per-photo model as well.
For now, those in the industry believe that governments and private companies — not average consumers — are the ones who will drive sales, and there's no shortage of interested parties. At BlackSky, which has received $53.5 million in funding to date, "We've got customers pretty much lined up out the door with dollars in hand going, ‘As soon as you're ready, we're ready,’" said Herman.
Going forward, the value to customers will be directly tied to what these companies will enable them to see — specifically, the sorts of actionable insights that Planet, Terra Bella, BlackSky, and more believe persistent, all-seeing eyes, and the data they generate, will be able to reveal. And for the industry to get there, Herman said, "We're going to darken the skies with satellites."