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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 16th September 2016 > DISRUPTION FROM OUTER SPACE


A MASSIVE stream of satellite photos will soon let us track war crimes, spot environmental disasters as they’re happening and hack the stock market by counting the cars in Wal-Mart parking lots
FIELDS OF GOLD: Satellite imagery could help monitor crops in the Russian steppes.

WHEN people say knowledge is power, they usually mean “money.” Even the great scientist and innovator Galileo Galilei knew that.

In 1609, Galileo wowed Venice’s big cheeses by letting them use his telescope to see ships way out at sea, a good two hours before their owners would see them enter the port. The Venetians were impressed (they doubled Galileo’s salary and gave him lifetime tenure at the University of Padua) because they immediately saw the huge financial and military advantages offered by this visionary device. A few hundred years later, we are on the cusp of an equally radical transformation in how information is gathered, analyzed and monetized. And if we pay attention, we might even save the planet.

The number of satellites orbiting Earth increased 40 percent in just the past five years, and those hunks of metal are snapping pictures at a mind-blowing rate. This explosion of images isn’t just the National Security Agency feverishly peeking into your bedroom and laptop; it’s a revolution that’s going to radically change how we respond to environmental disasters and run our farms. It’s also going to upend the stock market, because it’s turning the whole world into usable data, giving us a precise count of oil tankers in all the world’s ports and how many cars are in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Know that, and you can—like Galileo’s Venetian pals—make some very lucrative investments.

That’s why dozens of companies are racing to get into orbit. Seattle-based BlackSky Global is planning to launch six spacecraft; Terra Bella, a Google-Alphabet subsidiary, has two satellites in orbit and promises video that can “see objects up to the size of a car,” while Spire owns 10 orbiting satellites and plans to take millions of pictures of the world’s oceans. These and other upstarts are chasing imaging giants like DigitalGlobe, Airbus and Rapid Eye, who have hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware floating miles above our heads. But no one has launched as fast and as often as Planet, a startup running out of an old gray warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District. In a neighborhood filled mostly with vintage furniture stores, hip restaurants and coffee shops, Planet has 62 satellites in orbit, the world’s largest private collection, and by the end of the year it will have 100, enough that every nook, cranny and keyhole on Earth will get its own medium-resolution photo every single day. This avalanche of images will create an unprecedented database of the entire planet, one that can be used to stop forest fires and maybe even wars.

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