Satellites have come a long way since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, but not as far as you might think. The U.S. government still controls much of the market for visual imagery. If you want a particular photo, it’s likely to take a while, and cost a lot of money.
That may be about to change as several startups begin putting up cheaper mini-satellites. San Francisco-based Planet Labs plans to launch a ring of 28 units composed of "CubeSats"—10 centimeter-wide boxes that can be plugged together in various combinations—as early as December. The company has already launched two demonstration vessels, called Dove 1 and Dove 2, and recently issued the pictures seen here.
Other new operators, such as SkyBox, also have big plans. But what’s exciting about Planet Labs is that it’s expressly aimed at doing good. The company wants to open satellite imaging to everyone from "ecologists to citizen journalists," helping people track things like deforestation, natural disasters, and crop yields.
"Right now, the average person doesn’t quite understand how useful satellite data can be, but once it is accessible and frequently updated, the use-cases are endless," says spokesperson Tracy Nguyen.
The satellite constellation will be known as "Flock-1" and provide pictures with a resolution of three to five meters. Users will be able to call into a live feed in real time from a website—but Planet Labs hasn’t released any pricing information yet. The venture is backed by $13.1 million in venture capital money, and founded by three former NASA employees.