Half a century ago, Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps on the surface of the moon. It was the culmination of a golden age of space flight, as well as the dawn of a new technological era. The anniversary of this pivotal moment is a time to pause and reflect on the impact spaceflight has had on our society and economy. Moreover, it is an opportunity to consider where those footprints in the lunar dust may lead us.
The magnitude of the moon landing is difficult to overstate. In twelve years, mankind achieved the Giant Leap from Sputnik 1 to Apollo 11. Technology from the Apollo missions would go on to revolutionize products as varied as shoes and solar panels. It was the culmination of a dream that consumed years, resources, and tragically, lives. Across the globe, the first grainy images from the surface of another world were broadcast into homes and humanity gained a new sense of what was possible. In some ways, Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins returned to a different planet than the one they originally left.
'The greatest broadcast in television history'
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Over the last 50 years, space technology has had a growing impact on our lives. Just three years after Apollo 11, NASA launched Landsat 1 and made satellite observation of the Earth a reality. GPS and communication satellites revolutionized transportation and media. Virgin Galactic is on the threshold of space tourism and Elon Musk has plans to broadcast the Internet to every corner of the globe.
At Astraea, we believe that in the coming years data from satellites will become more accessible and revolutionize how businesses and NGOs operate, making the democratization of satellite data the next Giant Leap.
Earth Observation (EO) satellite data has been a foundation of the space community since Landsat 1 was launched in 1972. The private sector has been involved for decades too: The Earth Observation Satellite Company began operating satellites and distributing data in 1985. In recent years, developments in EO have accelerated. As Astraea co-founder and CTO Daniel Bailey explains,
“We are at an exciting inflection point in our understanding of the Earth. We have collected more data about our planet in the last 5 years than the previous 40 years combined. The challenge is no longer a lack of data, but rather our ability to process and turn the hundreds of terabytes being generated daily into actionable insights.”
Three emerging trends show that we are still in the early stages of an EO revolution:
- Lower costs will allow satellite operators to produce more data
- Developments in cloud computing will make EO data more manageable
- Machine learning tools will become increasingly applicable to EO data
As these trends reinforce each other, EO data will become useful and accessible to more sectors of society.
There are nearly 4,000 satellites in orbit generating mind-boggling amounts of data. Hundreds of these are EO satellites with cameras and sensors pointed back at Earth. For decades, satellite operators primarily competed to deploy the highest quality¹ cameras. As launches have gotten cheaper thanks to SpaceX and Blue Origin, startups are pushing the boundaries of EO. Companies like Planet and Spire are deploying hundreds of small satellites, capturing daily images of every location on Earth. Other companies are observing the planet through radar, infrared, and even greenhouse gas emissions. As technology allows us to see the world in ways we never imagined, organizations will put this data to use in novel ways.
The second key development is improvements in cloud computing. EO datasets are enormous and many companies do not have the computational capacity to process them. Astraea co-founder and VP of Engineering Matt Eldridge explains how this is changing:
“The advent of modern cloud technologies has enabled access to scalable computational power that was previously only cost-effective for governments and large-scale research organizations.”
As technology advances, it will become economical for firms of all sizes to keep and analyze EO data on the cloud. Many readers will be familiar with Moore’s law, which predicts a regular doubling of computing power². There is an important corollary called Bezos’ Law which predicts that cloud computing costs will halve every three years. So far, the law seems to be holding up meaning that EO datasets become more manageable with each passing year.
Why the cost of cloud computing is dropping dramatically
You might read the headline statement that the cost of cloud computing is dropping and say "Well, duh!". Or maybe…
The final critical trend in EO data is the improvement in machine learning techniques. Machine learning has been around for decades, IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat chess world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. However, it was only in 2014 that mining satellite images for insight became commercially viable at a global scale.
“When you combine the incredible volume and velocity of EO data with recent breakthroughs in computer vision techniques, the potential to uncover new insights about our planet and disrupt ‘business as usual’ across many sectors seems boundless,” explains Dr. Kimberly Scott, Astraea’s co-founder and VP of Data Science.
These statistical techniques remain arcane and inaccessible to most firms, and that is why Astraea is committed to making EO analysis easier. In some ways, the direction we’re headed is obvious. More data, more processing, and better analytics means an explosion of insight is coming. Organizations large and small will benefit from the space economy and utilize satellites as never before.
Today, satellites are showing us the Earth as it is. Tomorrow, they will help us see the Earth as it could be.
Written by Asher Begley
¹ By quality, we mean spatial resolution. Due to privacy and espionage concerns, the best resolution commercially permitted in the United States is 25cm² per pixel.
² Ok, Moore’s Law does not exactly predict a doubling of computer power. It is an observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit double every two years.