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Swarms of Small Satellites Set To Deliver Close To Real-Time Imagery of Earth 112

ananyo writes "A swarm of small satellites set to deliver close to real-time imagery of swathes of the planet is launching today. San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010 by three former NASA scientists, is scheduled to launch 28 of its 'Doves' on 9 January. Each toaster-sized device weighs about 5 kilograms and can take images at a resolution of 3–5 metres. Meanwhile Skybox Imaging plans to launch a swarm of 24 satellites, each weighing about 100 kilograms, which will take images of 1 meter resolution or better. Skybox launched its first satellite on 21 November (and captured the first HD video of the world from space) and plans to launch another this year, followed by the remainder between 2015 and 2017. In a first — at least for civilian satellites — Skybox's devices will also stream short segments of near-live high-resolution video footage of the planet. So, too, will UrtheCast, a start-up based in Vancouver, Canada, whose cameras will hitch a ride on the International Space Station. Because the swarms are still to be launched, scientists have yet to fully assess the quality of the imagery. But the satellites' spatial resolutions of 1–5 metres are much higher than those of most scientific satellites. Landsat, NASA's Earth-observation workhorse, for example, has a resolution of 15–100 metres depending on the spectral frequency, with 30 metres in the visible-light range."
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Swarms of Small Satellites Set To Deliver Close To Real-Time Imagery of Earth

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  • HD (Score:4, Informative)

    by Russ1642 ( 1087959 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:40PM (#45909811)

    I'm sure film cameras have been in space before and they are much higher quality than HD.

    • It makes you wonder if Satellites that small can achieve 1 meter resolution, what can the latest KH spy sats with their high focal length precision optics do
      • They can probably see you typing in the password or your phone.

        • Re:HD (Score:5, Interesting)

          by bob_super ( 3391281 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:53PM (#45909995)

          But they're apparently not overhead often enough to distinguish a wedding from a terrorist training camp.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            But they're apparently not overhead often enough to distinguish a wedding from a terrorist training camp.

            Well it would help if the guests did not bring their AK-47s to the ceremony and empty their magazine shooting up into the air. Try throwing rice not lead.

          • To be fair, if you've been to a wedding with a BrideZilla, there may not be much difference between the two.
        • Re:HD (Score:5, Informative)

          by deroby ( 568773 ) <> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:20PM (#45910347)

          Using toaster-size satellites, I very much doubt so.

          I seem to remember that doing so is impossible using 'normal' optics due simple physics. IIRC there is a limit to the resolution (expressed in radians) you can get for a given frequency for a given lens . Given the distance above our head these things fly this means there is a 'hard' maximum resolution these have and given what I remember from the article it was quite a bit above the ability to read the screen on your phone. The same /article/ (for the love of god I can't remember whether it was in print or some blog or something) stipulated that those pictures you see where they show you the playing-cards a man is holding are actually aerial pictures taken from specialised planes who happen to fly a LOT lower to the ground and also can carry big (heavy) lenses more easily.

          PS: I mention 'normal optics' because apparently (same long forgotten source) it should be possible to get much higher resolution by combining different satellites looking at the same target but flying some distance apart and combining their 'view' using some fancy mathematics.

          Doing some googling I stumble upon this that seems to conform the above : []

          • Unfortunately, most of your citations are from discussions back in 2007 when a 5MP camera was state of the art.

            Imaging sensors, digital signal processors, and optics have all improved substantially since then. I'm not saying the quality is an order of magnitude better, but some of those calculations might need to be reviewed.

            • Re:HD (Score:5, Informative)

              by kyrsjo ( 2420192 ) on Friday January 10, 2014 @05:32AM (#45914845)

              The problem isn't the resolution of the sensor chip (5 MPix), but the angular resolution of the optics, which is limited by diffraction (wave physics phenomenon) to some quantity which is dependent on the aperture of the lens. Bigger apperture (diameter of the light-opening) => higher angular resolution.

              The other problem is that satelites are quite far up, so you get less spatial resolution (cm on the ground) per unit angular resolution than you would get by being closer (putting the camera on a plane).

              The diffraction limit puts a hard limit on the achievable resolution no matter the quality of optics and sensor, and if you want to increase that limit, you need a bigger diameter telescope. This is why people are talking about "2 meter" and "5 meter" etc. mirrors on astronomical telescopes.

              The father of this post mentions that it is possible to get around this problem by using more than one satelite (or the same satelite at two different points in its orbit), effectively creating a much larger aperture. This is called syntetic aperture, and for this to work you need to record both the amplitude and phase of the incoming wave. It works great for radar applications as the wave used here is slow enough to be followed by electronics, but visible light is just way to fast and we can only record incident power (amplitude^2) and thus cannot do an off-line computation of the interference patterns wanted.

              • by deroby ( 568773 )

                Interesting, didn't know about the last part being 'in theory only' (nor its name)

                • by kyrsjo ( 2420192 )

                  For satelites aperture synthesis at optical wavelengths is purely theory, and will probably be for a long time. However, it is apparently doable for land-based telescopes:

                  The issue is (as explained in the article) that you need to know the relative position of the mirrors (and thus the length of the light-path) witin a small fraction of a wavelength, i.e. witin a few nm for light, and a few meters or cm for radar. Further, since you cannot measure bot

          • by Bugamn ( 1769722 )
            There was this xkcd [] about this topic. Its conclusion is similar. Check the hover-text to the last image.
      • Re:HD (Score:4, Insightful)

        by icebike ( 68054 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:06PM (#45910179)

        The sats that are small (Doves) get only 3-5 meter resolution.
        The much larger Skybox 1 meter resolution are not that small, weighing 100kg.

        3 to 5 meters misses car sized objects, or at best maps them into a single pixel.
        (Although by combining many subsequent frames you could achieve a better simulated resolution).

        So this is not likely to be useful for much besides measuring snowfall, forest fires, and storms.
        The 1 meter Skybox may be of greater interest, because you could track cattle and traffic in real time given enough of them in orbit.

        But 24 or 28 units aren't going to be able to support much useful coverage, as they would be hard pressed target more than a couple location of interest at a time. (Which is a good thing, in light of all the governmental spying).

        • The much larger Skybox 1 meter resolution are not that small, weighing 100kg.

          That's pretty small, compared to the ~2000kg competition.

          • by icebike ( 68054 )

            But those big units are capable of around 2-10 centimeter resolution [].

            Not to mention multiple wavelength capabilities. (IR, UV, etc).
            Of course we could never afford more than a couple at any given time.

            • While I'm not an intelligence analyst, I'm pretty sure that most of the time, lots of medium resolution (1m) imagery is significantly useful to supplant the intermittent high resolution (5cm) imagery.... if for nothing else than more data points to compare when looking for intriguing changes to study in more detail.

      • "Because the swarms are still to be launched, scientists have yet to fully assess the quality of the imagery."

        Understatement of the year.

      • To get much better than Skybox a larger optic wouldn't help. They are achieving an angular resolution of about 0.35 arcseconds, and because of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, at visible wavelengths this is about as fine a resolution you can achieve regardless of optics used.

        There may be some ways to use adaptive optics or lucky imaging. But they would be very difficult to apply given the rapid motion of the camera relative to the atmosphere. And they would apply only to a very limited spot on the gr

    • They sure have, but seeing what that was exposed on that film takes a while when you have to retrieve it from a satellite.

      • Re:HD (Score:4, Informative)

        by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:12PM (#45910259)

        No, they'd drop the film via parachute and it got picked up by the navy. The highest resolution they got was 1ft. []

        • The big question is, what can state-of-the art spy sats track these days at what resolution? Retina scans?
          • No, I think there's diminishing returns there. We knew they could read news print by at least the late 80s. Much smaller than that and I really don't see the utility. I think where we'd likely be shocked is in the wavelengths outside the visible spectrum they're using as well as automated targeting and signal processing. One of the problems with the old film sats was how few pictures they could take and the armies of people it would take to analyze and likely miss things because they're human. I bet the sof

        • by kyrsjo ( 2420192 )

          There are also other ways. The Lunar Orbiter probes launced by the US in the 60s used a film camera + automated film development. The images where then scanned and sent back to earth - the quality was pretty good. The main problem was that the computing power required to handle the scanned images (which I believe turned out as terrabytes of image data after digitizing of the old tapes by the LORIP project) just wasn't available at that time. If my memory serves me right, the camera system was probably based

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I wonder what Number 4 thinks of this.

      Be Seeing You!

    • The quality of satellite imagery is limited by the optics that capture the images, not the medium the images are recorded on.
  • they will know every time i take the train too

    • by Anonymous Coward


    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      You're taking the train like a good boy, so they don't have to worry about you. You are already under control.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Just what we need. More crap in orbit.

    • by Russ1642 ( 1087959 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:57PM (#45910065)

      Orbital space is very very very large. Vast. Immense. It is damn near impossible for it to be cluttered. Don't buy into the FUD.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Orbital space is very large, Immense. The subset that is low earth orbit is smaller. And it is crowded. Folks launch things but they don't always provide a safe way to bring them back to Earth. And yes, they do run into one another. And I've yet to hear of anything launched into orbit inexpensively. Care to consider how small an object will destroy a satellite at orbital velocity?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 )

        Orbital space is very very very large. Vast. Immense. It is damn near impossible for it to be cluttered. Don't buy into the FUD.

        Yes, like the oceans. Infinite in size! We could never pollute that much!

  • by pjbgravely ( 751384 ) <pjbgravely2@g m a> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:59PM (#45910087) Homepage Journal
    We will never see the images. They will be declared top secret in the name of terrorism by homeland security.

    Where I am there is aerial photography done but none of it is viewable by common people now.
  • So basically (Score:4, Insightful)

    by koan ( 80826 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:00PM (#45910099)


  • Of who owns the airspace above the atmosphere. Understanding that each Country in the world has control over the airspace within it's borders, but what what elevation does that cease? Could you launch a vehicle from international waters taking your own satellites into orbit and beyond the control of anyone? I'm sure it would upset many folks. Resources not being an issue for such an undertaking.

    • I think above 100KM their is no legal claim of sovereign "airspace" per current international law.
    • Well, you don't orbit satellites where there is air. So no problems with airspace.

      Claiming the space above your piece of dirt is a bit stupid. If there was no limit, every time the moon passes by do you temporarily gain ownership of it? Do the countries in the tropics all take their share of sun ownership?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    More space junk when they fail. Didn't read the article, but hopefully their orbit is sufficiently low that they will quickly spiral down.

  • I assume the satellites themselves have minimal delta-v so how do you end up covering "large swaths of earth" with a bunch of satellites launched at the same time from the same craft?
  • imagine what the NRO's 30+ ELINT/SIGINT satellites are doing across the FULL spectrum. mapping out and monitoring brain electrical activity, tapping into electronics remotely, radar systems for viewing people everywhere they go.. watching your energy signatures even under cover of buildings, etc.

    I calculated that based on Moore's law (governors optics, sensors, transistors, and integrated circuitry/CMOS), that satellites today are approximately 65536 times more powerful than Hubble was when it launched in 1

    • by ameline ( 771895 )
      So your contention is that the NSA is ceiling cat?
      • by strstr ( 539330 )

        Yep. they point their Signals Intelligence sensors at any area - suddenly they see 12+ persons fucking / masturbating in a building, a couple taking a shit/using the potty, others laying in bed asleep .. you name it. all the embarrassing things you do in private, the government can watch through the walls. And, to add to that, they can go inside your head and extract images, and emotions, and watch your "dirty" and "criminally retarded" thoughts.

        they also do it for other reasons though. they can control any

  • Apples and Oranges (Score:5, Informative)

    by Remus Shepherd ( 32833 ) <> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:26PM (#45910419) Homepage

    I work on the Landsat program. The article pulls Landsat out as an example of mid-resolution satellites, but it's really an apples-to-oranges comparison. Landsat 8 has 11 spectral bands, including thermal IR, a Cirrus band, a coastal aerosol band, and so on. All of these are used for scientific purposes. The Dove and Skysat instruments have 3 or 4 bands, just enough to get an RGB picture and maybe some chlorophyll distinction for agriculture producers.

    Landsat is used to study land cover change, find new resources, map fire scars, and other applications that require precision and data depth; the swarm satellites will be used to make maps and that's about it. Both are important, but comparing one to the other is like comparing a smart car to a grain combine. They're used for totally different purposes.

    • Well, yeah, but these have the wye-fies and I think this is the one with the bigger gee bees. Can I get these new satellites in white? ;-)

    • by kyrsjo ( 2420192 )

      This version just as a few bands, true - but a future version could have many more. And I would assume that just clorophyll density with high resolution and short time between pictures would be quite valuable?

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:29PM (#45910457) Homepage

    Digital Globe already offers 41cm resolution. Much of Google Earth imagery comes from their satellites. This new constellation will produce lower-res information, but more frequently. Useful for traffic studies and such, but the market isn't clear.

    • Useful for traffic studies and such, but the market isn't clear.

      "Is that the FedEx man with my deliver at the door or a solicitor? I don't want to get up from the sofa, pull up the satellite view..."

  • NSA backdoor. Check!
    • by Anonymous Coward
      NSA Bingo!! I win! (First to catch the first douche to insert an NSA post into an off-topic story).
  • Real time. (Score:5, Informative)

    by DarthVain ( 724186 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @05:05PM (#45910879)

    Um No. As someone who has worked with remote sensing imagery the resolution is not all that good. Landsat is ancient and there are loads of other high resolution options. The resolutions these "swarms" have are not particularity good.

    The interesting part is the in "real time" bit.

    However in that I am even doubtful unless they are using very large values for "real" time.

    Anyone that has worked with this kind of data will tell you A) it is usually HUGE, and B) marginally compresses. Data has to be sent from satellite to ground. That means transmission. At what speed? Unless they have discovered a way of sending data magically faster than the rest of the world, it is still constrained by that. In addition, most of the time these sorts of images need to be processed, and with the volume of data we are talking about, even machines with a lot of processing power can be pushed to the limit, doing small chunks for days.

    That said, I would be really excited if it really worked. This would allow for all sorts of scientific observations, and resource management, and a host of other things. (if only in small limited areas which are predetermined by orbit)

    I get a kick out of all the TV and movies like Enemy of the State depicting satellite tracking and zooming etc... Enhance! Sure it is possible that some secret agency somewhere has some magic technology that does this. Then again has your encounters with any other branch of government given you the idea that this might be a possibility?

    Maybe the real story here is that that satellites are really cheap to build and launch, meaning that we may have access to half decent (1-5m resolutions) coverage over most of the globe soon most of the time. Still processing may be a problem. So rather than a very poor update measured in years, you might get something better is much less time. Maybe. I presume these are commercial, and will have to make a profit off these somehow. Selling the data to Google Maps perhaps?

    • by dj245 ( 732906 )

      The interesting part is the in "real time" bit.

      However in that I am even doubtful unless they are using very large values for "real" time.

      Anyone that has worked with this kind of data will tell you A) it is usually HUGE, and B) marginally compresses. Data has to be sent from satellite to ground. That means transmission. At what speed? Unless they have discovered a way of sending data magically faster than the rest of the world, it is still constrained by that.

      Oh yes. Sending realtime video from a satellite to earth is a problem that absolutely nobody can crack []. Hint: they aren't imaging the entire planet at 1m resolution at the same time.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well, those are geostationary satellites. Good luck imaging the Earth at 1m resolution from 36 thousand kilometers up vs the few hundred km for LEO. Oh and poles, don't forget to somehow shoot the poles that are completely out of the line of sight from GEO. :)

        • by kyrsjo ( 2420192 )

          Please upwote anon - s/he's completely right. Downlink is way easier when the satelite stays in one place relative to you, and you can just point a big dish at it. If all you get a few minutes per pass, a couple of times per day (if you have multiple ground stations), it gets way harder...

    • 1m resolution of the entire surface of Earth is only a few petabytes... wait, I see your point.

  • by kenh ( 9056 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @05:26PM (#45911119) Homepage Journal

    You're saying that it's possible to launch a satellite into orbit around the earth, turn a camera on that satellite towards earth, and watch what's happening in "almost" real-time?!

    Whatever you do, don't let the NSA know about this - they might start spying on us...

  • NSA, CIA, NRO, Israel , ???

  • Been rewatching "Max Headroom" (one of my all-time faves) lately and have been so impressed with how much they foresaw. Sure, today's cameras are a lot smaller and several details about society and industry were a bit off-base, but the idea that information is more valuable than money, the rise of corporate power while governments decline in relevance, and a lot of other things they got spot on.

    That said, the live telemetry from "satcams" is something which has been missing. Google made a big leap forward

  • You just know the nsa is gonna love this. Sure, the nro already has satellites, but think of how many more eyeballs there'll be available to co-opt.

  • What is the goal of this project?
  • ..."photograph huge swathes of the planet as often as several times each day — a frequency much higher than that achieved by current Earth-observing satellites." Well no wonder ananyo didn't include anything about latency in his summary. Chaturbate is close to real-time. This is not.

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