Not all of this is new: Scientists have been using pixels as data for the past half century. Since 1972, satellites in the U.S. government’s Landsat program have systematically photographed every speck of land on Earth, every 16 days, without fail. Landsat, now one of the largest and most powerful tranches of earth-science data, is an invaluable scientific resource. In the 1980s, it revealed the extent and severity of Amazon deforestation; now it captures the massive changes to Earth’s surface wrought by climate change. One of the most widely cited satellite data sets, a global survey of forest loss created by the University of Maryland professor Chris Hansen, is powered by Landsat data.
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But the program’s future is more uncertain—and its fate is tied to Planet’s. The next Landsat satellite, dubbed Landsat 9, is due to launch late next year. But NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey have considered using a new approach with its successor, Landsat 10. They could replace it with two satellites instead, mimicking an EU program. Or they could try replacing Landsat with a swarm of satellites, creating a publicly owned version of Planet’s constellation.
Some lawmakers have even proposed that the government rely entirely on private-sector data for Landsat 10. Van Den Hoek said that seemed unlikely, at least for now. “People who hold the purse strings may want that to happen, but no one at NASA wants that to happen,” he said. Planet, too, supports the Landsat program and doesn’t want to see it change significantly, a spokesperson told me. The company’s satellites revisit the same speck of land more often than Landsat’s do, and its cameras have a higher resolution. But its craft are unable to capture as many types of light.
Planet tries to make as much of its data available to as many researchers as possible, and some universities now have blanket licenses to much of its imagery. The company remains a commercial enterprise (albeit one that has not yet turned a profit), but Joe Mascaro, an ecologist who now directs academic partnerships for Planet, told me that the replicability of research is a “core principle we would do our best to meet.” And if Planet explores “future, larger contracts with NASA,” says Trevor Hammond, Planet’s vice president of communications, it “would go in with its eyes open” about the tension between open science and closed data.
Van Den Hoek emphasized that Landsat and Planet are good at different tasks. Landsat could capture widespread shifts to the land: urbanization, deforestation, the loss of polar ice. Planet excels at more fine-grained tasks. “You can ask questions that you could never ask before,” he said. “Huge portions of sub-Saharan Africa rely on small-scale agriculture for daily subsistence. You can’t measure that with Landsat data.”
NASA is also working with Spire Global, a Bay Area start-up that collects high-quality weather data, and Maxar, a more established player that owns the WorldView spy satellites. Peter Platzer, the chief executive of Spire, told me in an email that NASA plans to spend $100 million on small-satellite projects over the next few years.