Microsatellites: What Big Eyes They Have
PEOPLE already worried about the candid cameras on Google Glass and low-flying drones can add a new potential snooper to the list: cameras on inexpensive, low-orbiting microsatellites that will soon be sending back frequent, low-cost snapshots of most of Earth’s populated regions from space.
They won’t be the first cameras out there, of course. Earth-imaging satellites the size of vans have long circled the globe, but those cost millions of dollars each to build and launch, in part because of their weight and specialized hardware. The new satellites, with some of the same off-the-shelf miniaturized technology that has made smartphones and laptops so powerful, will be far less expensive.
The view from high up is rich in untapped data, said Paul Saffo, a forecaster and essayist. He expects the new satellite services to find many customers.
Insurance companies, for example, could use the satellites’ “before” and “after” views to monitor insured property and validate claims after a disaster. Businesses that update online maps for geologists, city planners or disaster relief officials could be customers, too. The images could also be used to monitor problems like deforestation, melting icecaps and overfishing.
And food companies and commodities traders could use the images to keep track of crops and agricultural yields all over the planet, Mr. Saffo predicted.
But the images are also likely to be viewed as the latest mixed blessing by people already apprehensive of Big Brother-like surveillance in their lives.
First into space in the microsatellite business will be the San Francisco company Planet Labs, which plans to launch a fleet of 28 small satellites at the end of the year that will photograph the planet around the clock, with frequent updates. The company has already sent up two trial satellites for test runs, and will dispatch the entire set, called Flock-1, in December, said Will Marshall, a co-founder of the company and a former NASA scientist.
The Planet Labs’ satellites won’t be able to distinguish your face or read your license plate — the cameras don’t have that level of resolution. But the frequency with which images can be updated could raise privacy questions, said Timothy Edgar, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and a former director of privacy and civil liberties in the Obama administration.
Mr. Edgar contrasted the satellite images with those provided by Google Earth — the ones that people zoom in on to see, for example, an aerial view of their homes.”That’s just an image of your house that was probably taken a few years ago,” he said. “It may feel like you are being watched, but you aren’t. It’s just a static picture that’s most likely several years old.”
But a satellite that regularly passes over your cabin deep in the woods and photographs a car that is sometimes parked there — and sometimes not — has different ramifications. “It can show a pattern, for example, when you appear to be at home and when you’re away,” he said.
Planet Labs’ technology, like that at other microsatellite companies such as Skybox Imaging, are benefiting from the progressive miniaturization of consumer electronic components, along with a federal effort to commercialize space. “What we are seeing are smaller satellites that have similar capabilities to much larger, traditional satellites,” saidGlenn Lightsey, a professor at the University of Texas who founded and directs the Texas Spacecraft Lab there. “Since putting a satellite in orbit is a function of its size, these new satellites are able to get into orbit at a much lower cost,” he said.
The lightweight satellites have another advantage: the companies don’t have to spend millions of dollars for a rocket to get them into space. Instead, they can hitch a ride as a secondary payload on a rocket already making the trip. Planet Labs will send its satellites on an Antares rocket when it heads out on a cargo transportation flight to the International Space Station.
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