If you’re a Planet customer — or you’re just a fan of pictures of Earth from space — you may have noticed some recent changes in our image gallery. In the past few weeks we’ve added dozens of new images featuring everything from tropical glaciers to fjord fog to the impact of the novel coronavirus:

Satellite view of glaciers beneath the summit of Puncak Jaya, Indonesia.
Satellite view of glaciers beneath the summit of Puncak Jaya, Indonesia.


Neil Peart died last week.

I found out on the company Slack, when a good friend and colleague sent me a link to the CBC article announcing his passing, followed by a simple “sigh”.

My reply was an equally succinct four letters, but far less sanguine.

“Fuck.”

I took a deep breath, flipped off my computer, and headed out into the mild San Francisco winter to think and reflect. But I didn’t bring headphones. I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.

It is impossible to overstate how important Rush, and Neil’s lyrics, have been to my life. I’ve been listening to them almost obsessively since I was 10 or 11 (circa Signals). I’ve made, maintained, and rekindled friendships through Rush. They got me through an often painful childhood and young adulthood. …


Retired SpaceX Falcon 1 launch site. Omelek Island, Kwajalein Atoll.
Retired SpaceX Falcon 1 launch site. Omelek Island, Kwajalein Atoll.
Retired SpaceX Falcon 1 launch site. Omelek Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands. SkySat image collected on October 5, 2019. ©2019 Planet Labs, Inc.

There are only a few dozen sites on Earth that are optimal for rocket launches, and they’re either extremely remote, on the edge of an ocean, or both. There are several good reasons for this, which are all a side effect of the speeds needed to reach orbit — about 28,000 kilometers (17,500 miles) per hour to get Planet’s satellites into orbit 500 kilometers (310 miles) above the Earth’s surface. (That’s 80 times the top speed of a Formula 1 car!)

Reason One: A rocket launch is dangerous. To get off the ground and into orbit it takes a lot of fuel, and if that fuel goes BOOM (suddenly and unexpectedly), the fuel and assorted bits of rocket, rocket engine, and satellite can be scattered over a shockingly large area — especially if the explosion happens after the rocket gains some altitude. …


A year ago, I put together a series of satellite views of 21st Century Landscapes—areas where humans had completely reshaped their environment since the year 2000. The things is, humans are an industrious species, and we just won’t stop building things (or, occasionally, rehabilitating things). Here’s a set of images highlighting the links between development from Antarctica to Sub-Arctica Canada, Shanghai to Midway Island.

Each image was collected by one of Planet Labs’ SkySat high-resolution Earth observation satellites. At full size—2500 by 1406 pixels—each is 0.8 meters per pixel and 2.0 kilometers by 1.1 kilometers (1.2 miles by 0.70 miles), north up, and displayed in true color. All images ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Lithium Mine. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. December 11, 2018.
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Tesla Gigafactory. Sparks, Nevada, USA. June 14, 2018.
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Reclaimed Land. Shanghai, China. September 14, 2018.
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Dust Abatement, Owens Dry Lake Bed. California, USA. October 25, 2018.
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Jeddah Tower. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. August 16, 2018.
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Salesforce Tower. San Francisco, California, USA. June 23, 2018.
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Subdivision. Dubai, United Arab Emirates. August 8, 2018.
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Subdivision. Plum Grove, Texas, USA. November 16, 2018.
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Plantation. Mato Grosso, Brazil. May 28, 2018.
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Selective Logging. Democratic Republic of the Congo. September 14, 2018.
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European Gravitational Observatory-Virgo. Tuscany, Italy. December 15, 2018.
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Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Livingston, Louisiana, USA. February 10, 2017.
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Airport. Dirkou, Niger. September 2, 2018.
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Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. United States. November 24, 2018.
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Caval Ridge Mine Project. Queensland, Australia. September 30, 2018.
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Port of Gladstone. Queensland, Australia. September 14, 2018.
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Dalian Bay Coal Terminal. Liaoning, China. April 15, 2018.
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Power Plant. Nanxiong, China. October 1, 2018.
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Alpensia Ski Resort & Sliding Center. Pyeongchang, South Korea. February 13. 2018.
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Whistler Sliding Center. British Columbia, Canada. August 27, 2018.
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Border Crossing. Mexico—United States. December 10, 2018.
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Border Crossing. Afghanistan—Pakistan. October 15, 2018.
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U.S. Route 121. Sophie, West Virginia, USA. November 4, 2018.
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Øresund Bridge Toll Plaza. Malmo, Sweden. June 15, 2018.
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Saltpeter Mine. Antofagasta, Chile. December 4, 2018.
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Irrigated Fields. Ica, Peru. October 1, 2018.
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In Situ Extraction, Athabasca Oil Sands. Alberta, Canada. July 26, 2018.
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Oil Wells. New Mexico, USA. November 25, 2018.
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Astronomical Observatories. La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain. December 12, 2018.
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Concordia Research Station. Dome C, Antarctica. February 23, 2018.
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Artisanal Gold Mine. Madre de Dios, Peru. January 20, 2016.
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Grasberg Mine. Papua, Indonesia. August 4, 2017.
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Airport and Beachfront Hotels. Wonsan, North Korea. October 14, 2018.
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Urban Redevelopment. Damascus, Syria. November 26, 2018.
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Tianjin, China. May 26, 2015.
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Tianjin, China. August 21, 2015.
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Tianjin, China. August 2, 2018.

See more at Planet.


While it’s possible for hand-made data visualization to be distorted (hopefully with intention) it’s not inherent to the medium—precise, meticulously drawn maps, charts, and graphs are quite doable, and were the norm before the arrival of computer-aided-design and drafting and R.

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Sebastian Vettel at the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix. Photograph ©2018 Tyayaki Suzuki. CC BY-SA 2.0.

From Melbourne, Australia to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Formula 1 is a truly global sporting event. Over the course of a 10-month-season and 21 Grand Prix, each car will race more than 3,360 kilometers (plus additional distance during testing, practice, and qualifying).

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Map by Leanne Abraham, Planet.

These dynamic, high definition satellite photographs (each collected by one of Planet’s SkySats) from around the Globe establish a new perspective on Formula 1. …


After writing an article on handcrafted data visualization a few months ago, I kept my eyes open for new examples. As they accumulated, I began to notice a few commonalities that displayed the power of graphics created by hand: distortion, precision, physicality, and art.

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Yosemite National Park, By Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service.

Distortion

I’ll start with a painting (above) of Yosemite National Park. Here’s the Government Publishing Office’s description: “Looking down Yosemite Valley from west to east, an alpine panoramist depicts the Yosemite National Park’s wondrous rock forms, hanging valleys, waterfalls, lakes, and streams with El Capitain and Half Dome forming the central spectacle with Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls.”

Commissioned by the National Park Service and painted by Heinrich Berann, the map manipulates perspective and distorts elevation to provide an exaggerated sense of the landscape. …


After color correction, there’s a few more image processing steps that can really help a satellite image stand out from a crowd—boosting saturation, local contrast enhancement, and sharpening fine details. These are partly physically-based (accounting for how the atmosphere, optics, sensor, and data processing effect an image)—and partly aesthetic (purely for making an image appealing). Fortunately, these processes can be easily achieved in GIMP or other image editing software with a saturation adjustment, an unsharp mask with a wide radius and low amount, followed by another unsharp mask with a small radius and a large amount.

As an example, here’s a PlanetScope image (you can get additional data via a 14-day trial, Open California, or Planet’s Education and Research program) of Kīlauea Volcano’s Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater (immediately after an explosion covered the area in pink ash) after basic color correction (top) and further enhancement…


Now that you’ve found and downloaded satellite data of an area that interests you—or just the sample datasets I pointed to in the Accessing Data and Pre-processing Multi-band Data for Sentinel-2, or Stitching Data for SkySat—what next? How can you convert raw numbers into a picture that evokes the feeling of looking down at Earth from space?

At a global scale, it’s essential to process satellite data automatically—there’s just not enough time to work on images individually. Instead, the data is processed by algorithms (not unlike the software in a digital camera) to convert from bits to pixels.

I’ve run into two general approaches, each with different tradeoffs: either process each image individually, to extract maximum contrast and “punch”, or process every image exactly the same, for consistency. …


Not all satellite data is formatted like Landsat and Sentinel-2—many commercial sources provide data in a single file with multiple bands, instead of the one band per file. One example is Planet’s high-resolution SkySat data. At 80 cm per pixel SkySats show details far sharper than existing non-commercial data, so it’s fun to work with.

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Boston in the summer. SkySat data collected on July 30, 2017. Image ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-by SA 4.0.

Planet’s provided some sample data if you fill out a contact form (don’t worry, we don’t bite) so go ahead and grab some — I chose Boston — the site of OpenVisConf from 2013–17, but take your pick. …

About

Robert Simmon

Data Visualization, Planet Labs. Ex-NASA. Blue Marble, Earth at Night, color.

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