Spysats for Everyone

Swarms of small, orbiting cameras are coming. To watch.

Lower Manhattan at one-meter resolution. The IKONOS satellite took this picture in 2000, when such detailed imagery was new on the market, and the Twin Towers (left, center) were intact. (Digitalglobe)
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Four years ago, Wade Larson’s then-employer—Vancouver-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates—sent him and a colleague to Moscow to brainstorm ideas for observing Earth from space. The Russian company Energia was looking for joint projects it could do from its segment of the International Space Station, and had invited MDA, a blue-chip aerospace company with lots of experience in remote sensing, to partner in something.

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What came to Larson’s mind was a bird’s nest—specifically an eagle’s nest on Hornby Island, off Vancouver, where a live webcam, running 24/7, had attracted millions of Internet viewers. If the public would gaze at a screen for hours mesmerized by pictures of baby eagles, Larson figured, maybe they’d watch scenes of Earth beamed down live from orbit. All you had to do was attach a camera to the outside of the station and leave it running.

“The Russians loved it,” he says, and he took the idea back to his bosses in Canada. This November, two of Larson’s cameras will be attached to the Zvezda module on the ISS by spacewalking cosmonauts, as the private venture of a small Vancouver company called UrtheCast, co-founded by Larson to keep his unorthodox project alive after MDA decided not to pursue it.

If you like those time-lapse movies taken by orbiting astronauts, the ones showing auroras glowing and lightning storms flashing as the station glides serenely over the planet, you’ll love UrtheCast’s videos.

Two cameras will point straight down from the ISS altitude, about 250 miles, filming whatever is happening on Earth directly below them. One will take five-meter-resolution pictures (showing details 16 feet or larger), and the other will shoot higher-resolution (1.1-meter), high-definition video at three frames per second. Each video scene will show a patch of ground, about two by three miles, for about 90 seconds, says Larson. “We’ll collect 150 of those videos every day…. You’ll see true movement [on the ground].”

Because the station’s ground track shifts as it orbits 16 times a day, coverage of any particular location will be irregular, though frequent. For a mid-latitude city like Vancouver, the revisit rate is something like 900 times a year, according to Larson. Not every pass will produce usable pictures. Still, the UrtheCast images will be far sharper than the time-lapse views shot by astronauts. They’ll be almost (but not quite) a video version of the satellite view in Google Maps, with dot-like cars driving down the street, except that you’ll see your neighborhood the way it looked last Friday, not five years ago.

“From a space-borne platform, this is utterly unique,” says Larson.

UrtheCast is just one of the companies poised to take Earth imaging into a new era of frequent coverage, low cost, and wider public access. The new ventures are capitalizing on improvements in small satellite technology—long promised, but now becoming real—and the government’s easing of restrictions on the sale of images once produced only by spysats.

Just as important, the companies are applying modern, Google-era search tools to that imagery, making it easier to use and interpret for those of us who aren’t CIA analysts. Mapbox of Washington, D.C. is offering current map data and satellite images produced by others, with pricing plans starting at $5 a month for 10,000 “map views.” “Our goal is to have live imagery for publishing within six hours of an event, anywhere in the world,” says the company’s website.

What’s new here is not picture quality. UrtheCast’s one-meter-resolution pictures—good enough to make out cars in parking lots—will be far from the sharpest imagery on the commercial market. DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado, sells pictures (to the U.S. government and Google, among others) that are twice as good. But only a few high-paying customers get to see the current stuff.

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