Tracking what’s happening on Earth from space is becoming more and more feasible as Earth-observing satellites increase in number and resolution. The USGS’s Landsat mission has an incredible 40-year record of the planet’s changing landscape, with virtually every spot imaged every eight days. It’s an incredible scientific asset. But what if you could see every bit of the globe, every single day? That opens a new range of possible uses for satellite imagery.
This is the mission of Planet Labs.
The 2-year-old company is launching dozens—71 so far—minisatellites, a veritable swarm (or flock, as they call it) of nimble imagers. This is a major departure from the prevailing model of designing a single, tremendously powerful (and expensive) Earth-observing satellite and rigorously testing it for years before launching it.
These conventional commercial satellites certainly have greater capabilities and higher resolution than the minisats. For example, Digital Globe’s new Worldview-3, launched in August, is capable of an incredible 31-centimeter (12-inch) resolution—high enough to clearly show small cars, manholes, and even mailboxes. The Planet Labs satellites provide around 5-meter (16-foot) resolution, but their strength is in numbers. Eventually, the company wants to have enough cameras (probably hundreds) in orbit to image the entire planet every 24-hours.
But these little satellites, which measure about 12 inches by 4 inches, have other big advantages.by