Aug 31, 2017 Ville Vahteri
Last February, world records were made in India. The earlier all-time-high of 37 satellites sent to space simultaneously was set by Russia in 2014. Now it’s wiped away by a total of 104 satellites that reached orbit at the same time. It was the San Francisco-based startup Planet Labs who made it possible with their 88 tiny Dove satellites. Now they have altogether 149 such satellites sent to space, resulting as the world’s largest fleet of satellites.
Each Dove has a powerful camera and telescope to take a photo of our planet everyday. That’s something that no one else can do. It’s like Google Earth but none of their pics are years old – rather hours. That’s groundbreaking: to spot life’s patterns and changes (e.g. floods and crops), monthly data is seldom enough. Since founding Planet Labs in 2010, the former NASA/USRA Scientist Will Marshall and his team have been enabling exactly that – “to image the planet, everyday”. When asked why on Earth (or above it) they do it, the answer is world-healing:
“Our vision how space should be used, is to help humanity”, Will convinces. “It wasn’t just that we wanted to break that record and have the largest number of satellites, but [to solve] all the world’s major challenges: from feeding everyone to world poverty and stopping climate change. And this, having daily images of the planet, is gonna dramatically help with those global challenges.” Mapping rain forests, glaciers and coral reefs and improving disaster relief work as great examples of using the collected data beneficially.
They cannot do the trick alone, though. That might be why they provide the service for free to other solvers: nonprofits, students, and new organizations. Although their ultimate goal is to give the data to everyone, there’s the business side too. For the daily pictures, they charge millions from their paying customers that include governments, agricultural companies, and even Fortune 100 companies. Not a surprise, since according to MIT Technology Review, it’s possible “to monitor ship traffic at ports as a proxy for a country’s economic health, gauge oil reserves by the angles of shadows cast by oil tanks, and monitor illegal mining operations and deforestation rates in places like Peru and Vietnam.”
Starting to sound a bit scary. But as Marshall explains to Bloomberg, he and his team wouldn’t be on this mission if it caused more trouble than good: “If you look at things like disaster response, protecting habitats and protecting our oceans, we can help substantially and in a global way. The net good overwhelms the bad in a huge way.” What’s relieving too, is that the resolution is high enough to spot cars and trees but not people. This, however, might change now that Planet Labs bought Google’s satellite business Terra Bella, which eventually improves the Doves’ camera resolution.
Doves are inspired by, and made of, mobile phone components. This allows Planet Labs to produce 20 of them each week. In addition, each Dove is designed to last three years and costs a lot less than traditional satellites. That gives an idea about how they might revolutionize the whole space industry – and our image of the dear Mother Earth. Naturally, Planet Labs is not the only one covering this world with smaller satellites. Still, while the true space race is only starting, they already possess a good lead in it.
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