Here's HD Video of the World's Tallest Building—and a Flying Plane—From Space

It was taken by one of the world's most futuristic companies, and it's astonishing.

If a new class of startups find success, we’ll soon see videos like the one above fairly regularly.

Right now, though, they’re astonishing. 

This is high-definition satellite video of the Burj Khalifa—which is, at more than half-a-mile high, the world’s tallest building. It was taken by a satellite owned and operated by Skybox Imaging, a Silicon Valley startup that hopes to fill low-Earth orbit with dozens of small satellites that can take HD video like this. Skybox released other HD video late last year, but this might be the most impressive yet.

Mostly because: LOOK, IN THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE FRAME. YOU CAN SEE THE PLANE FLY. That is what a plane looks in flight from above. And that vague shadow, which appears in the top right of the screen during the video’s last few seconds, seems to be the shadow of the same plane.

The Burj Khalifa astonishes, too, and there are other major features in the video worth noticing. The darkest shapes you see are shadows. The vast and flatter building to the Burj’s right is the Dubai Mall, the largest mall by land area in the world. In the top-left corner, you can see the lanes and ramps of the E11, the longest road in the United Arab Emirates. 

The video is filled not only with landmarks but also with detail. When discussing the value of satellite imagery, analysts often mention counting cars in a Walmart lot: If you can estimate how many cars fill the American big-box giant’s parking lots on Black Friday, they say, you could better estimate the company’s holiday earnings. In the video above, you can see the Dubai Mall’s parking lot. (Though it's not clear how useful this particular image could be.)

Other details hold less utility than beauty. Notice the ripples in the water that surrounds the tower. As the satellite passes east-to-west and views the scene from more of a slant, you can begin to see the drains and pipes at the bottom of that pool. Cars, meanwhile, glint as they drive on the highway, catching the sun.

Skybox isn’t the only company that hopes to capture high-definition video like this. As I reported in January, there are at least two other companies with similar ambitions. Skybox’s leaders hope to move beyond this frame, though, and eventually create a sort of computational cloud full of data about the Earth.

Little wonder, then, that last week TechCrunch reported Google was interested in purchasing the startup.

Videos like the one above transfix us. This one in particular strikes me as James Bond-like. This shadowed grayscale is what satellite imagery is supposed to look like; this seems like imagery that really could be “enhanced!” Every frame here possesses exquisite detail, detail as valuable to companies and those with power as it is beautiful to those of us with web connections. 

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

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