These Satellites capture the grittiest details of the places where people exist — and track human activity from Space.

These Satellites capture the grittiest details of the places where people exist — and track human activity from Space.

- in SCIENCE, STORIES
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@Ane Krstevska
satellites

A normal mid-sized town, HOPKINSVILLE, KENTUCKY, a home to 32,000 people tripled in population on August 21. Around 100,000 people gathered to see the total solar eclipse.

High-resolution satellites from hundreds of miles above the venue snapped images of the crowd.

Their cameras are accurate enough to capture a book on a coffee table.

They belong to a company called DigitalGlobe.

And because of that high resolution, they can only depict that book, twice a day at most. And a lot can happen between breakfast and dinner. The “WorldView Legion” satellite is going to be ready in 2021. DigitalGlobe will be capable of picturing parts of the planet every 20 minutes. They can flash photos dozens of times a day.

The companies can launch more and cheaper satellites to cover more ground more often. The name of this technique is “high revisit” satellite imagery. Planet, a leading small imaging company, prides itself on captivating the globe’s full landmass every day. Mostly at around four meters of resolution.

With a plan to launch thousands more on top of the nearly two hundred satellites they already have, Planet is filling low-Earth orbit and looking down at the world with a gaze of growing intensity.

As traditional satellite companies sometimes have months-long gaps between images of a given place, Planet and its competitors started to provide a new service — slightly hazy images that can display periodic changes in a spot on Earth.

DigitalGlobe believes it can provide quality and quantity.

Along with WorldView Legion, is counting on the fact that their customers (governments, oil-drillers, metal miners, retail chain owners), do not need or want to see the whole planet’s daily dynamics. They want to know about the bigger aspects of the places where people are, like digging up natural resources, cutting down forests.

Walter Scott the founder and CTO of DigitalGlobe, says that a large percentage of the population lives in a really narrow band of latitudes.

And that’s how DigitalGlobe created the WorldView Legion constellation. Together with another flock of satellites called Scout, they can snap a photo of a high-demand spot 40 times a day. Scott refused to specify how many satellites count as legion. But they will be 30-centimeter- and 50-centimeter-class, with the first rocketing in 2020, and the last in 2021.

This battalion of satellites was built by Space Systems Loral (SSL) of California.

They build their satellites in Palo Alto. The companies are tied together in the corporate world. DigitalGlobe is in the final stages of a merger with a communications company called MDA, which also bought SSL back in 2012.

MDA isn’t just keeping WorldView Legion in the family. It is keeping the majority of humanity’s remote-sensing activities there. As Northern Sky Research, an industry analysis group wrote in its latest Satellite-Based Earth Observation report: the satisfied urge to merge gives MDA/DigitalGlobe command over the Earth observation stage.

The former Northern Sky analyst Prateep Basu wrote:

A whopping 74 percent of the [Earth observation] data market was concentrated between three players. Digital Globe, Airbus D&S, and MDA—with the rest split between roughly a dozen players, including the likes of Telespazio and Planet.

Under a single management, DigitalGlobe and MDA control 54 percent of the market.

With SSL, they can domesticate legions of satellites, big and small, for themselves and others. Money, money, money, mo-neyyy.

That’s a big deal! The terrestrial imagery affects economies and international relations, in addition to map apps. These satellite companies have big lists of clients. They do work for governments, revealing troop movement and arms test preparation. Prospectors can learn whether someone just started drilling into an oil supply, and how much black gold they seem to be getting.

Relief organizations can look at a flood zone and figure out how best to help.

It can count cars at the WalMart parking lots.

All of this to know how many people shop, where, when and (e.g. if Target is worried).

Now that’ll take us to a point where instead of seeing, let’s say, how the flood waters peak and recede over a week, a satellite can see them shift from 9:30 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. Or capture how the 2024 eclipse-chasing crowd snowballs as it nears. That satellite-streamed “nowcasting” may just make life easier.

Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at SSL says:

You’re on vacation and want to know what the beach looks like, where the traffic is, where the crowds are.

The future’s satellite industry is showing not how the world was, or even how it is, but how it will be.

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