Third Rock From the Sun; Let’s Talk Satellite Imaging

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The first known image of earth from space was taken on 24 October 1946 from 105 km above the ground by American scientists using a captured Nazi rocket. This was followed decades later in 1972 by the launch of the first civilian earth-observing satellite, Landsat I, which shepherded in the modern era of satellite-based imagery. Now, there are an estimated 713 active non-military earth observation satellites in orbit, 75% of which were launched in the last five years. Thanks to innovation in space launching technology, Earth is now imaged in its entirety daily by fleets of public and private cameras in orbit.

Satellite imaging of our pale blue dot (aka earth) can provide many useful insights into what is happening on the ground, as high-resolution images, time comparisons, and machine learning provide tools to analyze the changing earth. In fact, the United Nations has estimated that approximately 20% of the Sustainable Development Goal indicators can be interpreted and measured either through direct use of geospatial data itself or through integration with statistical data.

Evidence supported by objective data, like geospatial images is key for designing, monitoring, and reviewing intelligent policy. Some recent examples of these applications of satellite imagery include monitoring the effectiveness of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, and the use of imagery in fighting environmental degradation, watching migration patterns, improving precision in agricultural management, and even measuring economic prosperity.

In order to derive insights from satellite imagery, organizations must first process the imagery into a data product that is meaningful with respect to the problems that we want to solve. In the case of land use monitoring, satellite imagery has to be categorized into data coverage such as: water, tree canopy, barren land, and built up surfaces. This data is useful in downstream sustainability applications; however, it is also extremely costly to create manually. This is where machine learning techniques become critical by objectively quantifying surface types to derive useful insights at scale.

A booming space economy has made achieving these analytical feats sharper and cheaper, and space is just getting busier. SpaceX has launched around 1000 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit as part of a program that aims to bring cheap, satellite-based internet access to everyone. Eventually, this program could place nearly 12,000 satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Crowding in low earth orbit has inevitable consequences for ground-based astronomers. It also has consequences for satellites and other space vehicles, including those designed to carry humans. Hopefully our endeavors to improve life on earth through space-based information, communication, and data is not creating a new environmental catastrophe outside our own atmosphere.

Derek Brooks, VP Investments

On January 24 SpaceX launched a rocket with 143 satellites — the most ever flown on a single mission. CEO Elon Musk now controls a quarter of all active satellites orbiting Earth after launching more than a dozen Starlink missions over the last two years.

NASA’s entire media library of space is available to download for your desktop. They could also serve as great celestial zoom backgrounds.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs offers an overview of how Space technology can support each SDG.

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