By Fergus Pitt
When Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket exploded over Cape Canaveral, Florida, June 28, its entire payload of supplies to the International Space Station was destroyed. Also lost were the eight tiny satellites owned by Planet Labs—a self-styled agile space company with ambitions to provide a high-resolution picture of the entire planet every day for at least the next 20 years.
Planet Labs’ founders say they’re part of both a blossoming ecosystem of space industry startups and an ongoing revolution in electronics and sensing. That ecosystem meant that the massive SpaceX failure didn’t spell ruin for Planet Labs. It was able to get 14 new satellites into space less than 60 days after the explosion—a recovery time unthinkable in the previous era.
Planet Labs’ rapid recovery is indicative of a new technological trend in a rather unexpected field. This generation of remote sensors—which can be quickly produced, deployed, and adjusted—will power new opportunities for journalism. Indeed, the most innovative practitioners are already honing their skills to use satellites’ data and imagery. But although the new space-startup ecology gives Planet Labs an astounding resilience and has some newsrooms excited, these developments have also sent policymakers, ethicists, and lawyers scrambling to catch up.
A startling number of sensors now permeate our world, from the accelerometers in Fitbits to the motion sensors in autonomous cars. The powerful instruments on high-flying drones and satellites are called “remote sensors”: high above, rarely noticed, but immensely powerful, particularly when it comes to documenting change. For ProPublica journalists telling a story about the devastating land loss in Louisiana, remote-sensing data opened up particularly important storytelling capabilities.
Traditional editors and journalism professors say that stories need characters and anecdotes; they’re the color that attracts readers and evokes a passionate response. But some stories spread over decades and miles—individuals and anecdotes alone can’t show that. Al Shaw, from ProPublica’s data team, had read that the Louisiana coast loses a football field’s worth of land every hour. “I wanted people to see the maps and the scope of the problems,” he said.
The team, with considerable help from the U.S. Geological Survey, drew on a remote-sensing data that started with NASA’s first Landsat satellite in 1972 and ended with the current Landsat 8. ProPublica’s work presented an environmental problem that could be uniquely illustrated by images collected with the widest of views—from outer space—over the course of decades. Satellites don’t get bored returning to the same subject year after year. The data they generate allows for excellent visualizations, which online readers enjoy interacting with.
Satellites’ remarkable access makes them particularly valuable for those reporting on hostile regions. Within hours of the Aug. 12 chemical warehouse explosion in Tianjin, China, the New York Times had published before and after satellite imagery of the site of the disaster. Bypassing the monitoring that Chinese authorities place on foreign journalists, the Times could use satellite imagery from one of the private industry leaders, DigitalGlobe, to show detailed images and diagrams of the hazardous materials storage. One of the newsroom’s cartographers and satellite experts, Derek Watkins, says they’ve found that government satellites like Landsat rarely have the spatial resolution to show news events.
News organizations famously lost exclusivity on information distribution years ago, but the increasing availability of satellite imagery might also be eroding big news companies’ other competitive advantage: a far-flung network of foreign correspondents. Satellites can be thought of as reporting tools with great international access and superhuman capabilities, and the private operating companies will provide the content to all comers (as long as they’re able to pay). On Aug. 31, the U.N. satellite analysis unit broke news on Twitter confirming that ISIS had razed to the ground the main temple in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. The BBC picked up the story shortly thereafter.
In these examples satellite imagery mostly helped journalists tell stories they were already reporting, but executives at new space companies have also placed bets that combinations of technology trends will be transformative; cheaper crafts and more powerful sensors, coupled with computer vision and algorithmic signal detection, may give researchers wholly fresh leads or new predictive abilities.
Planet Labs co-founder Robbie Schingler’s goal is to get 150 shoebox-size satellites into a constellation around Earth, taking a 3- to 5-megapixel-resolution image of the whole planet every single day, and, over time, producing a visual archive lasting 20 years or more. The ex-NASA staffer invokes the missions of librarians and scholars: “That longitudinal data of 20 years is history. It’s history that’s actually recorded.” And here, his goals start to sound very similar to those of the fourth estate: “You may be able to classify the decisions that people make earlier; say, a land use policy, where you can say, ‘Probabilistically, if you vote this way, this is going to happen.’ That’s what could happen if we enable the transparent planet.”
The U.S. government only recently started licensing satellite companies to sell very high-resolution images to private customers. So whereas Planet Labs intends to take medium-resolution images of the whole Earth every single day for years, some of its competitors, like DigitalGlobe, took advantage of the U.S. government’s looser restrictions on spatial resolution. They post 12-inch resolution images—around 50 times more precise than the U.S. government’s Landsat images, the resource freely available to journalists and the public. Viewers of DigitalGlobe’s imagery can pick out branches on trees, individual windows, and car panels. (Clients who want fresh imagery can order up a mission, sending the satellite and its giant camera lens to their point of interest.) Amnesty International has used DigitalGlobe’s infrared imagery to analyze Boko Haram’s mass killing and destruction in Nigeria.