Massive new satellite network can watch everything and everyone on Earth
By Matthew Griffin
Feb 19 2017
Planet, a global satellite company, who recently bought mini-sat company Terra Bella from Google, is used to breaking records. In 2014, a rocket exploded with a payload of 26 of the company’s satellites on board – the biggest loss ever. Now, a few years later Planet are look set another record by launching the largest satellite fleet ever – that is at least until Elon Musk and his interplanetary internet system step up to the plate later this year – using a rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India that will launch 88 satellites into orbit.
Once in orbit these small cube satellites, each weighing less than 12 pounds, which the company are calling “Doves” will hook up with other orbiting satellite systems to capture pictures of the Earth.
While this doesn’t sound like anything amazing, or even out of the ordinary, after all, we’ve been photographing and observing the Earth for decades, until now we’ve never been able to observe all of it, in real time in high detail. And that’s a game changer. For the first time every square inch of every landmass, all 58 million square miles of it can be tracked, monitored and observed in real time, that includes every movement and car journey you make, every city, every field – everything.
Such a vast observation network has its benefits – we could use it to monitor real time crop yields, and direct relief efforts in disaster zones. Cities could track parking spaces and pipe that information into apps, mining companies can calculate the volumes of material coming out of their operations – or their competitors, and governments, well, they could spy on everything.
Once the satellites have launched Planet will become the most powerful provider of Earth imagery and Terra Bella was Planet’s last piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
Google bought Terra Bella for $500 million in 2014, when they were called Skybox Imaging and had just two satellites. But after a few years, Google decided it didn’t want to play the space game. That makes sense to Walter Scott, who founded DigitalGlobe, another company who’s observing the world, albeit on a smaller scale.
“Space is hard,” he said, “our customers generally find it more cost effective to be buyers rather than owners.”
And that’s what Google is going to do, when they sold Terra Bella and their seven satellites to Planet for an undisclosed sum they also signed a multi-year agreement to buy data back from Planet. Now, Google gets the images it wants without the pain of buying rocket space, having satellites blow up, or competing with Planet – which, presumably, didn’t want to be bought because it is doing just fine on its own, thank you very much. Meanwhile, Terra Bella’s satellites will make up for the Doves’ deficits.
“The acquisition wasn’t just an accident, where we got drunk one day,” says Planet founder Will Marshall, “each of the seven satellites we bought as part of the acquisition has four to six times the resolution of our current fleet, but they can’t provide the same constant coverage. So the Doves can watch for real time changes in their high-throughput, lower-resolution images, and if they see a shift – flooding where land was dry, a bunch of tanks next to a formerly quiet oil pipeline, and so on – we can task one of the bigger satellites to take a better picture.”