Planet Labs and other companies are sending hundreds of low-cost satellites into orbit. We’re only beginning to understand how that will change life on Earth.
A good rocket launch site has a few important characteristics. An unpopulated patch of land near an oc The facility, which opened in 1971 and was named for an Indian rocket scientist, looks more like a defunct disco than a gateway to tomorrow. At the check-in area, splotches of concrete peek through yellow-painted walls where photos of rockets and renowned engineers hang haphazardly.
Beneath bulbs dangling from exposed wires, a team of friendly barefoot officials takes your information, then sends you outside to a mango-tree-shaded security gate. The police officers in olive-green uniforms and dark blue berets take no notice of the occasional white cow lumbering through the gate.
From there you reach a central compound of pastel-colored offices and living quarters, surrounded by a jungle of casuarina, eucalyptus, and palm trees.
A ways away, at the water’s edge, is the launch pad. More cows collect outside the entry gate, while monkeys chatter in the trees. At 9:28 a.m. on Feb. 15, these animals watched anxiously as an Indian rocket lifted off, roaring through the hot, sticky air.
Its payload consisted of 104 satellites, dwarfing the previous world record of 37 set by Russia in 2014. The largest of them weighed 1,500 pounds and was designed to map India’s infrastructure and monitor urban and rural development. Nestled alongside were around a dozen smaller satellites from universities, startups, and research groups.
What made the launch a record were the 88 shoebox-size “Dove” satellites built by Planet Labs Inc., a startup in San Francisco.
For the past few years, Planet has been sending batches of its Doves into orbit, each carrying a high-powered telescope and camera programmed to photograph a different swath of Earth. The 88 launched from Sriharikota would join 61 others to become the largest fleet ever put in orbit.
Images beamed back by the 61 have been used far and wide: Hedge funds scour Walmart parking lots to measure traffic flows during back-to-school seasons. Farmers assess crop health and estimate optimal harvest times.
Activists track Amazonian deforestation and Syrian refugee camps. Spies monitor military buildups and trafficking operations. With all 149 satellites in place, Planet will be able to photograph every inch of Earth’s surface every day—something even the U.S. government can’t do.
This satellite constellation is one of many signs that the relationship between humans and space is changing in ways unseen since Russia and the U.S. began sending rockets into orbit six decades ago. Thanks to modern software, artificial intelligence, advances in electronics and materials, and a generation of aggressive, unconventional entrepreneurs, we are awash in space startups.
These companies envision an era in which rockets take off daily, filling the skies with satellites that sense Earth’s every action—in effect building a computational shell around our planet. The people constructing this bustling new economic highway promise it will improve life down below, but the future they describe is packed with wonder and controversy in equal measure—and although few have noticed, it’s coming to pass right now.
The New Space revolution’s satellite boom began near another marshland, two oceans away from Sriharikota, where the San Francisco Bay meets the border of Mountain View, Calif. There you’ll find the NASA Ames Research Center, marked by odd-shaped buildings and some hangars that once housed Depression-era airships and enormous old wind tunnels.
Since 2006, under the stewardship of Pete Worden, Ames has garnered a reputation for far-flung experimentation. Worden, an astrophysicist and former U.S. Air Force brigadier general, spent decades running Black Ops missions and oversaw the development of Ronald Reagan’s never-built Star Wars missile defense shield, among other jobs geared toward weaponizing space. At Ames he delighted in hiring adventurous young engineers for unusual research projects and forged strong ties with Silicon Valley, inviting startups to set up on NASA property and creating commercial links between the organization and Google Inc. He was also eccentric, occasionally donning a robe and taking to the surrounding fields with a staff to herd goats.
Among Worden’s first hires were a pair of rabble-rousing engineers named Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler. The three men had met a few years earlier at a space conference in Houston, where Marshall and Schingler were handing out fliers decrying a renewed push under George W. Bush to militarize space. “I was having a drink with a colleague in a bar and could hear this guy with a loud British accent pushing against space weapons,” Worden says of Marshall. “I said, ‘Do they know Darth Vader is sitting right here?’ ” He called the men over for a drink and an argument, and the three of them hit it off.
Marshall, who has a doctorate in physics from the University of Oxford, worked on a number of teams at Ames, including ones building a cheap lunar lander and the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) probe, which found water at the moon’s south pole. Schingler focused on making satellites for scientific missions, including one to find exoplanets, and on making NASA technology and data more accessible to the public.
Toward 2009, Ames researchers started batting around the possibilities opened up by smartphones. The first iPhone had been released two years earlier, and the scientists were awed that devices so small could pack so much horsepower and such sophisticated sensors and imaging technology. Could smartphones be the template for a new kind of satellite, they wondered?
Typical satellites are about the size of a bus. They take years to design and build, weigh maybe 7,000 pounds, cost as much as $300 million, and rely on specialized electronics that can withstand conditions anywhere from 100 miles to 22,000 miles above Earth. They’re technological marvels and yet so time-consuming to make and launch that they often run on antiquated computing systems for the decade or more they’re in use.
Convinced of the potential for improvement, the Ames scientists, led at first by Marshall and a young Australian physicist named Chris Boshuizen, and soon by Schingler as well, set to work on a version of a CubeSat, a satellite that can fit into a very small case. The device they hoped to build would be inexpensive and light, capable of being constructed quickly and deployed en masse to perform independent or synchronized tasks. If space radiation fried a component now and again, no problem—the satellites would be so cheap as to verge on disposable.
Boshuizen and Marshall assembled their first CubeSats by hand, ripping apart an HTC Nexus One and connecting antennas, a large battery pack, and other electronics to the smartphone’s innards. Within a few months, they had a prototype performing well in NASA’s labs; a couple of months after that it successfully delivered data to Earth from a high-altitude balloon.
At the time, Marshall and Schingler were living together in nearby Cupertino in a seven-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot group house called the Rainbow Mansion. Schingler and his girlfriend had set up the place for engineers and assorted idealists to live communally, holding salons by the koi pond at which they discussed the world’s problems. After Marshall and Boshuizen told Schingler about their work on the satellites, the house also became a research and development laboratory. As the three tested ideas in the garage at night and on weekends, they became convinced they had the basis for a new company. They initially decided to call it Cosmogia Inc.—“a nod to cosmos with some arbitrary ending,” Marshall says.