Sun, Aug 11, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Microsatellites offer expanded view of world

By Anne Eisenberg  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

A photograph courtesy of CSG/ESA shows Europe’s lightweight Vega rocket taking off from the Kourou space station in French Guiana late on May 6 on its first mission, carrying two small Earth observation satellites and a microsatellite.

Photo: AFP

People already worried about the candid cameras on Google Glass and low-flying drones can add a new potential snooper to the list: cameras on inexpensive, low-orbiting microsatellites that will soon be sending back frequent, low-cost snapshots of most of Earth’s populated regions from space.

They will not be the first cameras out there, of course. Earth-imaging satellites the size of vans have long circled the globe, but those cost millions of dollars each to build and launch, in part because of their weight and specialized hardware. The new satellites, with some of the same off-the-shelf miniaturized technology that has made smartphones and laptops so powerful, will be far less expensive than their older counterparts.

The view from high up is rich in untapped data, said Paul Saffo, a forecaster and essayist. He expects the new satellite services to find many customers.

Insurance companies, for example, could use the satellites’ “before” and “after” views to monitor insured property and validate claims after a disaster. Businesses that update online maps for geologists, city planners or disaster relief officials could be customers, too. The images could also be used to monitor problems like deforestation, melting icecaps and overfishing. In addition, food companies and commodities traders could use the images to keep track of crops and agricultural yields all over the planet, Saffo said.


However, the images are also likely to be viewed as the latest mixed blessing by people already apprehensive of Big Brother-like surveillance in their lives.

First into space in the microsatellite business will be the San Francisco company Planet Labs Inc, which plans to launch a fleet of 28 small satellites at the end of the year that will photograph the planet around the clock, with frequent updates. The company has already sent up two trial satellites for test runs and will dispatch the entire set, called Flock-1, in December, said Will Marshall, a cofounder of the company and a former NASA scientist.

The Planet Labs’ satellites will not be able to distinguish your face or read your license plate — the cameras don’t have that level of resolution.

However, the frequency with which images can be updated could raise privacy questions, said Timothy Edgar, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and a former director of privacy and civil liberties in US President Barack Obama’s administration.

Edgar contrasted the satellite images with those provided by Google Earth — the ones that people zoom in on to see, for example, an aerial view of their homes.

“That’s just an image of your house that was probably taken a few years ago,” he said. “It may feel like you are being watched, but you aren’t. It’s just a static picture that’s most likely several years old.”

However, a satellite that regularly passes over your cabin deep in the woods and photographs a car that is sometimes parked there — and sometimes not — has different ramifications.

“It can show a pattern, for example, when you appear to be at home and when you’re away,” Edgar said.

Planet Labs’ technology, like that at other microsatellite companies suchas Skybox Imaging, are benefiting from the progressive miniaturization of consumer electronic components, along with a federal effort to commercialize space.

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