SAN FRANCISCO – In recent months, satellite images have leaked into a former textile factory revealing the construction of powerful Russian air defense systems in Ukraine, a serious new threat to NATO aircraft.
This is no secret CIA facility, and the images do not come from a billion-dollar surveillance satellite.
They are taken from private spaceships – some with bread-size ones – run by Planet Labs, a Silicon Valley company that is revolutionizing how humans view Earth from space.
A short stroll from San Francisco's Yelp headquarters and LinkedIn, the planet operates the largest and least expensive fleet of satellites in history ̵
In May, one of the satellites on the planet captured white smoke from an illegal North Korean missile test, an image that erupted during a news cycle the following day, undermining President Donald Trump's insistence that the North Korean regime negotiate with the US in good faith.
"I think it's so important the photos don't lie," Will Marshall, one of the co-founders of the planet and a former NASA spacecraft designer, "The picture is what it is. And sometimes it can be awkward. But it will also help us move far from this world after truth, to more one based on facts. "
The American intelligence community is a client of the planet, but so are environmental groups, farmers, Wall Street traders and journalists. The park of satellite imagery planets documents climate change, natural disasters, the growth of refugee camps and the number of national retail chain car parks.
When floods flooded Western Iowa in March, state officials would not deal with the severity of the damage until they saw the above-ground images of Planet. They say the data helped them better coordinate the response.
As camp fire raged in California last year, Planet images helped employees decide where to send fire fighting teams.
"Earthquakes, fires, floods, typhoons, tsunamis … We can Help because we have an image the previous day, an image afterwards to help responders get there quickly," Marshall said.
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The first spy satellites weighed almost a ton and sent pictures back, launching giant movie canisters into passing planes. Nowadays, the most sophisticated government photo satellites can be the size of a school bus and cost billions.
Marshall and his partners built their first satellite in a garage, applying the principles of a smart phone, filling a complex camera and telescope in a rectangular box that weighs as much as a bowling ball.
Then they began to launch dozens of them into space at once and make pigments on commercial launches of larger satellites.
The planet will not say how much each one costs to make, except that it is "order" cheaper than traditional satellites.
Commercial image satellites are not new; Americans have been looking at photos of their homes on Google Maps for years. But these photos are usually a few years old because there are only so many commercial satellites and they can only cover so much land.
The planet changed the game.
The company's satellites are orbited as a Saturn ring, taking a picture at the same place at the same time at least once every 24 hours.
Never before have humans been able to document change on the surface of the planet in this way. Marshall, who has given two Ted Talks on his technology, has a line of labels on what he hopes this new image means to Earth: "You can't repair what you can't see."
The Park of 140 satellite companies broadcast back 1.2 million images per day. That's so much data that customers turn to artificial intelligence to make sense of it. This technology is in its infancy, which means it could be the beginning of a new era of Earth insight. One day in orbit, there may be enough satellites to provide a complete permanent coverage of the air – a snapshot on demand at any place on earth at any time the weather permits.
Other commercial satellite companies operate in the US, including BlackSky and Maxar. more expensive satellites with better resolution than those on the planet, but they don't have as many in orbit.
The planet's small moons remain in orbit for only two or three years before they burn out until they fall from the sky. So the company is constantly building more of them, with newer and better technologies.
"Last year, we built approximately as many satellites as the entire world gathered, outside of us, here in this small lab in San Francisco," Marshall
The company, which has not yet been published, is now valued at $ 2 billion.
As with any surveillance technology, the distribution of commercial images can be misused by both governments and the private sector. The US government is limiting the resolution of commercial satellite imagery to ensure that US spies still have the best images, so satellites cannot be used to snap close-ups of backyard sunshades. But commercial satellites are not without privacy risks and industry experts are beginning to cope with the consequences. How long before a satellite image of a homeless spouse's car parked where it should not be used in a divorce case?
Robert Cardillo, who until last year ran the US spy agency that handles satellite imaging, says leaders in his field are now struggling with the same influx of new data as the National Security Agency when human communication migrates to the Internet. And he wants to escape the moment of Edward Snowden – a revelation about surveillance that is of concern to society.
"We're in pixels," says Cardillo, the former director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or NGA, which has contracts with Planet and other private satellite companies. "Who controls the data? Where is it stored? How do you protect your privacy? We have the opportunity to have this conversation now with the American people."
Cycling and walking to work in downtown San Francisco, Hoodie-and-jeans employees say their products are not meant for spying. They called their little companions "pigeons" for a reason, Marshall says – they believe they are a force for good.
A new animal breeder company is using Planet images to monitor grass in its pastures and send livestock to areas where grass is higher. Arizona State University, the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology and the University of Queens are partnering with the World Coral Reef Mapping Planet. Humboldt County, California, uses the photos to dramatically improve its enforcement action against illegal marijuana farmers.
For Sarah Bidgood, who researches US and Russian weapons control issues at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, the images of the Planet are invaluable, helping her track those new Russian weapons in the Crimean Peninsula. in Ukraine, which Russia conquered in 2014.
It's better for everyone if private analysts can study the geopolitical hot spots of the world, she said.
"This is one of the things that the Planet does that I think is as important to the work of analysts as myself," Bygood said. "It gives information that gives us an idea of the detailed changes of the earth in our hands. And that is precisely what allows us to do good, nuanced analysis that can lead to good policy. "