A New 50-Trillion-Pixel Image of Earth, Every Day!

Aug 18, 2016

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—It’s not just that Terra Bella Avenue would be an unremarkable street in Silicon Valley. It would be an unremarkable street anywhere in suburban America. The gray-brick low rises could sit at an intersection in Edison, New Jersey, or Skokie, Illinois, real-estate attorneys or school-district administrators shuffling in and out every day, and nothing would seem out of the ordinary.But inside one of these buildings, past the cubicles and office kitchen, is a space-grade clean room where a man and woman are dusting off a new satellite the size of a dorm-room fridge. They’re clad in white, and their workspace resembles at once an auto shop, a high-school robotics lab, and the kind of gleaming NASA warehouses you see on the Discovery Channel.And in the next building over, a mission-control center dictates directions to two camera-laden spacecraft as they travel up and down the Earth, from pole to pole, every 90 minutes. With the help of relay towers in Norway, Alaska, and Antarctica, technicians download new imagery and monitor solar radiation through an “instrument panel” inside a Google Chrome window. Behind their hanging array of screens, there are seats for operators during launch and activation—each terminal just an Apple monitor and a Mac Mini.And all of this beneath industrial tile ceiling.This is the home of Terra Bella—the satellite company, formerly known as Skybox, that Google purchased for $500 million in June 2014. In the next 18 months, it plans to put more than a dozen new satellites into orbit. This will increase its imagery “refresh rate”—that is, how often any one spot on Earth is photographed—from one new image every three days to four to five new images per day.Terra Bella is part of a larger group of satellite companies that promise to transform the way we see Earth. Planet Labs is another: An independent startup based in San Francisco, it estimates that in the next 12 months, it will have more than 100 satellites beaming imagery down to Earth. That will give it an almost-daily imagery refresh rate. Twelve of those satellites are due to slip into orbit this Thursday, care of astronauts on the International Space Station.More than two years ago, I looked at a class of startups that I said were making “Silicon Valley’s new spy satellites.” They were, at heart, technology companies of 2010s vintage: funded with venture capital, well-versed in simulating hardware with software, and comfortable with “the cloud” and all its metaphors of scale. But they were also space companies, committed to building custom machinery and getting it into orbit.The profile of many of these organizations has grown since. Terra Bella has, of course, joined Alphabet. Planet Labs, which was flying just two test “doves” then, commands more than 35 now. Analysis companies, including Descartes Labs and Orbital Insight, have also sprouted up around the new bounty of imagery.But however much they’ve expanded so far, the coming year will be decisive for many of these firms. By the summer of 2017, many promise daily or more-than-daily refresh rates. Within a few years, hundreds of Earth-observing satellites could float above the planet, each little more than a camera at the end of a massive (and affordable) chain of processing, computing, and distribution.Or something could break: The market could falter, a couple key investments could dry up, and remote-sensing technology could be stuck at its current spot for another decade.

Terra Bella’s clean room, in their Mountain View headquarters (Terra Bella)
There are more than a couple new-ish companies in the satellite industry. Urthecast, for instance, operates a high-definition camera on the Russian part of the International Space Station; the Vancouver-based corporation purchased two imagery satellites last year and says 16 more are on the way. Black Sky Global, a startup in Seattle that definitely doesn’t have an ominous name, says it plans to have 60 satellites operating by 2019. Other companies remain in “stealth mode,” meaning they’ve been founded but haven’t announced anything yet.Even DigitalGlobe, the leader in the field, is building six smaller satellites with the help of the Saudi government to boost its refresh rate. Right now, DigitalGlobe (and to a lesser extent, Airbus) rules the business: When you look at pictures of your house on Google or Apple Maps, or when the Red Cross uses satellites pictures to do emergency-relief mapping, you’re seeing DG imagery.But it’s Planet Labs and Terra Bella who seem to be driving the small-satellite industry. Both are born of and based in Bay Area business culture. (Terra Bella’s founders often speak of the Stanford class where they met.) Both companies are now non-negligible in size: Planet Labs has more than 330 employees, evenly split between space-operations and product engineering; Terra Bella numbers more than 180. For reference, DigitalGlobe employs 1,300 people.And, despite both manufacturing satellites, Planet Labs and Terra Bella both downplay their importance. Dan Berkenstock, Terra Bella’s CEO, even implied its why the company is changing its name: “I think Skybox, in many ways, came to be equated with satellite imaging,” he told me. “And satellite imaging is great—but that’s one piece of the puzzle.” (I also wonder if Skybox sounded too much like the similarly geospatial-minded Mapbox or the recently devalued Dropbox.)Read more in the Atlantic................