What’s new with satellites is there are a lot more being launched lately and they are a lot smaller, according to Bloomberg.
At 9:28 a.m. on Feb. 15, these animals watched anxiously as an Indian rocket lifted off, roaring through the hot, sticky air. Its payload consisted of 104 satellites, dwarfing the previous world record of 37 set by Russia in 2014. The largest of them weighed 1,500 pounds and was designed to map India’s infrastructure and monitor urban and rural development. Nestled alongside were around a dozen smaller satellites from universities, startups, and research groups. What made the launch a record were the 88 shoebox-size “Dove” satellites built by Planet Labs Inc., a startup in San Francisco.
For the past few years, Planet has been sending batches of its Doves into orbit, each carrying a high-powered telescope and camera programmed to photograph a different swath of Earth. The 88 launched from Sriharikota would join 61 others to become the largest fleet ever put in orbit. Images beamed back by the 61 have been used far and wide: Hedge funds scour Walmart parking lots to measure traffic flows during back-to-school seasons. Farmers assess crop health and estimate optimal harvest times. Activists track Amazonian deforestation and Syrian refugee camps. Spies monitor military buildups and trafficking operations. With all 149 satellites in place, Planet will be able to photograph every inch of Earth’s surface every day—something even the U.S. government can’t do.
This satellite constellation is one of many signs that the relationship between humans and space is changing in ways unseen since Russia and the U.S. began sending rockets into orbit six decades ago. Thanks to modern software, artificial intelligence, advances in electronics and materials, and a generation of aggressive, unconventional entrepreneurs, we are awash in space startups. These companies envision an era in which rockets take off daily, filling the skies with satellites that sense Earth’s every action—in effect building a computational shell around our planet. The people constructing this bustling new economic highway promise it will improve life down below, but the future they describe is packed with wonder and controversy in equal measure—and although few have noticed, it’s coming to pass right now.
Overall, this seems good to me. A lot of the problems we have managing our economy are caused by lags between when things happen, when information is available, and when we are able to take action to respond. Real time information gets rid of the lag between when things happen and when we can know about them. This should help us understand what is going on with the natural environment better too, and maybe we can take some action based on that. Finally, I view any move toward less secrecy as a net positive in an era when governments, corporations, and even individuals are going to have ever more dangerous and ever more accessible technology at their disposal.
The biggest drawback might be that we will grow ever more dependent on this type of technology to the point we forget how to live without it, and then when it has inevitable glitches, that is going to cause new problems even as we are solving some older ones.