Changing America

Why hundreds of mini satellites are photographing the entire world daily

Planet is a San Francisco-based satellite and software company that is using its daily scans of the Earth to help solve the climate crisis.

Satellites are usually very big and very expensive. Most of them cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and take the better part of a decade to develop and launch. At the speed technology improves, many satellites are stuck operating obsolete hardware not long after launch. But a San Francisco company founded in 2010, called Planet, is forcing a paradigm shift in the Earth Observation industry by shooting hundreds of state of the art, relatively inexpensive, shoebox sized satellites into space and indexing the entire surface of the world every single day.

On August 23, 1966, the first picture of Earth was snapped by Lunar Orbiter 1. That photo became the first of millions of Earth observation photos to come in the following decades. Since then, thousands of satellites have been orbiting the Earth and transmitting photos of our “blue marble” back down to us.

“If you go back and look even ten years ago, having access to a satellite image was something powerful,” says Kevin Weil, President of Product and Business at Planet. “Now thanks to Planet and the rest of the space industry the problem is the opposite. Now there is so much imagery that more and more, governments and enterprises need help understanding what matters, extracting signal from the noise.”

Planet has more than 200 mini satellites, built with the newest off the shelf technology, performing a daily line scan of the Earth from about 450km of altitude. Because there is still friction from the atmosphere at that altitude, the satellites have a short life span of a few years before they spiral into the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. They are then replaced with more up-to-date satellites, allowing Planet to constantly iterate and test new technologies.

And while completing a 4 million photograph line scan of the Earth on a daily basis is a major component of Planet’s business, the real value is in the artificially intelligent software that is being built on top of these images. That software aims to do for Earth observation what Google did for the early internet. Planet is creating a searchable database for the Earth that has implications for almost every industry from agriculture to homeland security. These satellites are also playing a major role in the fight against deforestation and climate change.

“Deforestation is the second leading cause of anthropogenic climate change,” says Tara O’Shea, Senior Director of Forests and Land Use at Planet. “So it’s really critical if we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we have to first solve deforestation. We have to make it feasible for tropical countries to leave their forests standing.”

Planet software has in some cases been able to recognize signs of deforestation before it happens, by identifying unauthorized logging roads being built over multiple days in remote areas of the world. But small victories like that won’t make a huge dent in the fight to keep the forests standing. The hope at Planet is to provide tools that can be used to quantify exactly how valuable forests are so that there can be economic incentives in place to maintain the forests rather than harvest them.

“The unfortunate reality in today’s economic system is that forests are not seen as a valuable use of land,” says O’Shea. “If you are in the tropics and have a large amount of tropical forest, there are not necessarily industries lining up to pay you to leave that forest standing. There are a lot of economic incentives that say that land would be valuable in another use; to produce commodities and mining.”

But in an upcoming iteration of satellites being launched, the sensors will be equipped with bands that can measure daily methane and carbon emissions in concentrated areas. These satellites will provide data that will likely shape the collective decisions of governments fighting climate change on an international level. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” says O’Shea, and as the Planet satellites and software become increasingly more powerful, so too will the world likely become easier to manage.