Imagine an energy company which manages a pipeline through Canada’s taiga. The company’s charged with maintaining that pipeline, with making sure it isn’t leaking and hasn’t been compromised. So, every day, the company pays a local to get in a plane and fly over the otherwise inert, massive metal tube, looking for objects, organic or otherwise, that shouldn’t be there.
Or that’s what they’ve done for many years. Five years from now, that pilot might be out of a job. Tiny satellites, whizzing over head in low Earth orbit, could photograph every meter of the pipeline. It won’t seem like anyone’s nearby, but, should a truck or stain appear on the ice, a system administrator in Houston would get a text message warning of a problem.
Humans began photographing their home planet from space in a scientifically useful way about a half-century ago. Now the images are ubiquitous: On a web search, in a phone app, on the news, we see the browns and blues that denote pictures taken from the sky. They have rollicked around the culture, spawning both the techno-hippie Whole Earth Catalog and the $3 billion military contractor Digital Globe.
“Google Earth whetted consumers’s appetites for pictures of Earth from space,” Scott Larsen told me. But the pictures in our browsers, he said, have now become old and out of date.
“[Imagery from] five years ago is great, but how about from last year, last month, last week, yesterday?’”
Larsen leads Urthecast. It’s one of a cadre of startups—three are now out of stealth mode—tossing cameras out of the atmosphere and trying to turn them into a business. Each of the three is choosing different methods, different kinds of devices, and different orbits. Each is selling something a little different. They areUrthecast, Planet Labs, and Skybox.
Urthecast, for instance, plans to install two cameras—one still and one video—on the International Space Station, then beam video down using the Russian Space Agency’s antennae. Planet Labs, another, hopes to send 28 satellites, each about the size of a garden gnome, into low orbit. It will immediately control the largest private Earth-observing fleet of satellites ever created. SkyBox, finally, only hopes to operate two satellites in the next year—but its business plan seems most promising, and borrows the most from the modern startup playbook.
The capital and efficiency engines of Silicon Valley, having transformed markets and interactions both public and private on Earth, now look skyward.
Silicon Valley is making what, in any other decade, we’d call spy satellites.