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Small Satellites – The Next Big Thing in Geospatial Innovation

For all of us in the geospatial industry an important milestone was achieved recently. It was a story on 60 Minutes which introduced the masses to the small satellite boom that is ever so quietly revolutionizing the collection of imagery from space.

photo of Small Satellites from Planet Labs

Small Satellites from Planet Labs

From an article by Brit Farmer on CBS News.

For decades, the U.S. has relied on spy satellites to look deep into the territory of American adversaries, and for years, these were the cameras dominating Earth’s orbit.

Not anymore.

As David Martin reports on 60 Minutes, there are now commercial companies putting satellites in space and allowing customers to purchase panoramic images of Earth. As a result, the U.S. government no longer holds a monopoly on the photos taken from orbit—and has no power to classify commercial images as top secret.

One of those companies, Planet Labs, has put about 300 small satellites into orbit, enough to image the entire landmass of Earth every day. The company has done it, in part, by reducing the dimension of its satellites. Government satellites are the size of a pickup truck; Planet Labs’ are the size of a loaf of bread.

The U.S. government sets limits on commercial satellite use and mandates that American companies obtain a license. It also restricts the optical resolution of satellites; commercial cameras are not allowed to zoom down to the same detail as a spy satellite.

Still, the resolution comes relatively close. Martin told 60 Minutes Overtime that U.S. military officers could use commercial satellites for 90 percent of the intelligence they need.

These new satellites make close monitoring—if not outright espionage—an option, particularly for governments that do not have their own advanced satellite technology. The first spy photos that American satellites took of the former Soviet Union were not as high quality as the photos that Planet Labs is now taking.

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