Private CubeSats that Photograph Earth from Space

images taken from spaceThe Earth needs no introduction. It needs no introduction in part because the Apollo seventeen astronauts when they were hurdling around the moon in one hundred seventy two took this iconic image it galvanized a whole generation of human beings to realize that we are on Spaceship Earth fragile and finite as that is and we need to take care of it.

But while this picture is beautiful it’s static and the earth is constantly changing it’s changing on days timescales with human activity and the satellite imagery we have of it today is old. Typically years old and that’s important because you can’t fix what you can’t see. What we’d ideally want is images of the whole planet every day.

Planet Labs Current Roadblock

So what’s standing in our way? What’s the problem? This is the problem. Satellites are big expensive and they’re slow. This one weighs three tons. It’s six meters tall four meters wide. It took up the entire fairing of a rocket just to launch it one satellite one rocket it cost eight hundred fifty five million dollars satellites like these have done an amazing job of helping us to understand our planet. But if we want to understand it much more regularly we need lots of satellites. And this model isn’t scalable. So me and my friends we started Planet Labs to make satellite ultra compact and small and highly capable. I want to show you our satellite looks like this is our satellite.

This is not the scale model. This is the real size is ten by ten by thirty. Centimetres it weighs four kilograms and we’ve stuffed the latest and greatest electronics and census systems into this little package so that even though this is really small This can take pictures ten times the resolution of the big satellite here. Even though it weighs one thousandth of the mass and we call this satellite dove, and we call it dove because satellites are typically named after birds but normally birds of prey like Eagle Hawks, but I have a humanitarian mission. So we wanted to call them doves and we haven’t just built them there. We’ve launched them and not just one but many.

How we initiated our space research

It all started in our garage. Yes we built our first satellite prototype in our garage. Now this is pretty normal for a Silicon Valley Company that we are but we believe is the first time for a space company and that’s not the only trick we learned from Silicon Valley. We rapidly prototype our satellite we use release early release often on our software and we take a different risk approach we take them out and outside and test them. We even put satellites in space just to test the satellites and we’ve learnt to manufacture our satellites at scale. We use modern production techniques so we can build large numbers of them.

I think for the first time we call agile it aerospace and and that’s what enabled us to put so much capability into this little box. Now what has bonded our team over the years is the idea of democratizing access to satellite information. In fact the founders of our company Chris Robbie and I we met over fifteen years ago at the United Nations when they were hosting conference about exactly that question how do you use satellites to help humanity.

How do you use satellites to help people in developing countries or with climate change? And this is what has bonded us our entire team is passionate about using satellites to help humanity. You could say we’re space geeks but not only do we care about what’s out there we care about what’s down here too, I’m going to show you video from just four weeks ago of two of our satellites being launched from the International Space Station this is not an animation this is a video taken by the astronauts looking out of the window.

Gives you a bit of a sense of scale our two satellites is like some of the smallest satellites ever being launched in the biggest satellite and by the end the solar ray glints in the sun it’s very cool. Wait for it. Oh yeah it’s like the money shot. So we didn’t just launch two of them like this. We launched twenty eight of them. It’s the largest constellation of Earth imaging satellites in human history and it’s going to provide a completely radical new data set about our changing planet.

Launching our satellites into space

But that’s just the beginning. You see we’re going to launch more than a hundred of these satellites like these over the course of the next year it’s going to the largest constellation of satellites in human history and this is what it’s going to do acting in a single orbit plane the space fix with the sect of the Sun the Earth rotates underneath that all cameras pointed down and they so you scan across as the Earth rotates underneath the earth rotates every twenty four hours. So we scan every point on the planet every twenty four hours. It’s a line scanner for the planet. We don’t take a picture of anywhere on the planet every day.

We take a picture of every single place on the planet every day even though we launched these just a couple of weeks ago. We’ve already got some initial imagery from the satellite and I’m going to show it publicly for the first time right now. This is the very first picture taken by our satellite and happen to be over U.C. Davis campus in California when we turn the camera on. What was even cooler is when we compare it to the previous latest image of that area which was taken many months ago and the image on the left is from our satellite. And we see buildings being built. The general point is that we’ll be able to track urban growth as it happens around the whole world in all cities every day. Water as well thank you, we’ll be able to see the extent of all water bodies around the whole world every day and how water security from border security to food security we will feed crops as they grow in all the fields in every farmer’s field around the plant every day and help them to improve crop yield.

Stunning space photography

There’s a beautiful image that was taken just a few hours ago when a satellite was flying over Argentina. The general point is there are probably hundreds and thousands about the case of this data I’ve mentioned a few but there’s others deforestation the ice caps melting we can track all these things every tree on the planet every day. If you took the different scene today is image and yesterday’s image you’d see much of the world news you’d see floods and fires and earthquakes and we have decided therefore that the best thing that we can do with our data is to ensure universal access to it. We want to ensure everyone can see it.

Thank you. We want to empower N.G.O.s and companies and scientists and journalists to be able to answer the questions that they have about the planet. We want to be able to develop a community to run their apps on our data. In short we want to democratize access to information about our planet. Which brings me back to this. You see this will be an entirely new global data set and we believe that together we can help to take care of our spaceship earth. And what I would like to leave you with is the following question. If you had access to imagery of the whole planet every single day what would you do with that data? What problems would you solve? what exploration would you do? Well I invite you to come explore with us. Thank you very much.

by Will Marshall