Silicon Valley's New Spy Satellites

Three startups are launching services—and orbiters—to provide real-time, better-than-Google imagery of the Earth.
The International Space Station releases three nanosatellites—similar to those deployed by Planet Labs—on November 19, 2013. (NASA)

Imagine an energy company which manages a pipeline through Canada’s taiga. The company’s charged with maintaining that pipeline, with making sure it isn’t leaking and hasn’t been compromised. So, every day, the company pays a local to get in a plane and fly over the otherwise inert, massive metal tube, looking for objects, organic or otherwise, that shouldn’t be there.

Or that’s what they’ve done for many years. Five years from now, that pilot might be out of a job. Tiny satellites, whizzing over head in low Earth orbit, could photograph every meter of the pipeline. It won’t seem like anyone’s nearby, but, should a truck or stain appear on the ice, a system administrator in Houston would get a text message warning of a problem.

Humans began photographing their home planet from space in a scientifically useful way about a half-century ago. Now the images are ubiquitous: On a web search, in a phone app, on the news, we see the browns and blues that denote pictures taken from the sky. They have rollicked around the culture, spawning both the techno-hippie Whole Earth Catalog and the $3 billion military contractor Digital Globe.

The first picture of Earth taken from space, above, was photographed by a V-2 missile 65 miles in the air on October 24, 1946. Below, a recent image of farms taken by one of Planet Labs’s doves in Washington.

“Google Earth whetted consumers’s appetites for pictures of Earth from space,” Scott Larsen told me. But the pictures in our browsers, he said, have now become old and out of date.

“[Imagery from] five years ago is great, but how about from last year, last month, last week, yesterday?’”

Larsen leads Urthecast. It’s one of a cadre of startups—three are now out of stealth mode—tossing cameras out of the atmosphere and trying to turn them into a business. Each of the three is choosing different methods, different kinds of devices, and different orbits. Each is selling something a little different. They are Urthecast, Planet Labs, and Skybox.

Urthecast, for instance, plans to install two cameras—one still and one video—on the International Space Station, then beam video down using the Russian Space Agency’s antennae. Planet Labs, another, hopes to send 28 satellites, each about the size of a garden gnome, into low orbit. It will immediately control the largest private Earth-observing fleet of satellites ever created. SkyBox, finally, only hopes to operate two satellites in the next year—but its business plan seems most promising, and borrows the most from the modern startup playbook.

The capital and efficiency engines of Silicon Valley, having transformed markets and interactions both public and private on Earth, now look skyward.

Silicon Valley is making what, in any other decade, we’d call spy satellites.

Orbiting Cameras, Operated by Behemoths

Four government entities and two companies contributed imagery to this Google Maps image. (Google) 

Like the geography they depict, it can be easy to feel like the pictures in Google Earth have always been there, like they don’t have a history or a source.

In fact, a set of accreted structures dictate what and how satellite imagery reaches American consumers. Some of these limits are governmental: The U.S. government restricts the resolution of imagery that can be sold to the public, for example. Today, if the side of one pixel of Earth imagery is less than 50 centimeters long, it can’t be sold in America. (Though regulators may soon loosen those limits.)

The marketplace limits buyers still further, though. If you go looking for medium-resolution imagery, you’ll find it a hard task. If you want a picture of your house—or your pipeline—who do you buy it from?

You have a few options. You might download it for free from weather satellites, like those in NASA’s MODIS program. MODIS imagery is quite low-resolution, though: It will give you good (sometimes beautiful) photos of the clouds over your home state.

MODIS imagery of the northeast United States after last week’s snowstorm (NASA)

Other options are prohibitively expensive. The pan-European consortium that owns the airplane-manufacturer Airbus also operates a satellite company called Astrium, which sells imagery commercially. The German company Blackbridge and the Israeli ImageSat do the same. A few governments—Taiwan, India, South Korea—will sell imagery from their spy satellites to you.

Digital Globe’s WorldView-2 satellite
(Illustration from Digital Globe)

There’s also data from some other U.S. government-run projects, like the long-running Landsat program. That imagery’s free, and sometimes recent—but it’s not very high-resolution. Really, there’s only one American company that will sell you imagery in the medium- to high-range: Digital Globe.

Digital Globe is a public corporation, worth about $3 billion and based in Colorado. Most of its business flows from the Department of Defense: Last fiscal year, a full 60 percent of its revenue came from just one contract with the National Geointelligence Agency. It also supplies a substantial amount of imagery to Google Earth.

Digital Globe specializes, in other words, not just in big institutional buyers, but in the biggest of the big. It makes sense: In the modern Earth observing business, most of the players are enormous. Even in the list I just gave, most of the institutions either maintain a standing army or manufacture warplanes.

The wrecked Italian cruise vessel Costa Concordia, as captured by Digital Globe’s WorldView-2 satellite

And it makes economic sense, too, for these satellites operators to be behemoth. Not only is operating a satellite expensive, but sending it to space is maybe moreso. You can’t buy rocket fuel from a gas station.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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