Surge in Satellites Speeds Space Race for Data

The number of satellites orbiting Earth has nearly doubled in the last two years, sparked by reduced costs, advancement and miniaturization of technology, and a growing appetite for space-based data.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman December 6, 2022

Look up. Today, there are more than 7,500 satellites in low Earth orbit, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – any of which could be passing overhead at any given moment.

With each pass around the planet, these satellites are collecting a treasure trove of data that’s reshaping industries, uniting people across long distances, transforming scientific research, fighting climate change and even saving lives.

“Satellites become part of and support our everyday lives,” explained Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, who said satellites power everything from mobile internet access and broadcast television signals to GPS and critical national security operations.

“They connect us to each other and the world, and the aperture is only widening on how [they] can positively impact our society.”

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So valuable is space-based data that private companies are investing heavily in platforms designed to collect it. Since 2019, for example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched nearly 3,000 satellites into low Earth orbit as part of its Starlink constellation, which provides satellite internet access to 40 countries.

Thanks to SpaceX and others, including Earth observation company Planet, whose satellites capture 1.2 million high-resolution images of Earth every single day, the number of satellites orbiting Earth has nearly doubled in the last two years, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. The result is a massive stream of data that comes from space and can potentially improve life on Earth.

“We are currently living in a space renaissance where the technology needed for space has reduced in cost, stimulating new innovation and capabilities,” explained a Planet spokesperson.

It’s Rocket Science

Traditionally, only the wealthiest governments could afford satellite imagery. Lower-cost hardware and launch services are making space-based data accessible to almost anyone.

“Both the cost of building satellites and the price for rockets has dropped, enabling companies to launch satellites at a fraction of the price,” Planet’s spokesperson told The Forecast.

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One of those companies is GHGSat, a global leader in the high-resolution, remote-sensing of greenhouse gas from space.

“Today it’s possible for a small company like us to design, launch and own a satellite,” said Jean-Francois Gauthier, vice president of measurements and strategic initiatives at GHGSat, who cited the advent of miniaturized satellites – otherwise known as smallsats – as a significant development. 

While the first Earth observation satellite, NASA’s Landsat 1, was the size of a garbage truck when it launched in 1972, satellites today can be as small as a shoebox.

It's not just satellites that have changed, however. Also, it’s the rockets that transport them. 

“The biggest change has been the advent of new and lower-cost launching capabilities,” Gauthier said. “Building the satellites may be less than half the battle because you have to get it up to orbit affordably and in a short amount of time.”

Before SpaceX, launching satellites was a harrowing experience that required companies to wait years before their devices could be taken up to orbit.

“Now, with SpaceX launching as often as they do, it’s almost like a taxicab service,” Gauthier said. “That’s a game changer for the industry. It’s the democratization of space, and it makes it possible for a lot more people to use space to meet needs that are unmet on Earth.”

Data is King

Also fueling satellite market trends is a growing hunger for information.

“All of those launches and payloads are because people want data,” said Chip Eschenfelder, communications lead for mission solutions at Lockheed Martin Space.

The use cases for satellite data are as infinite as space itself. For example, Lockheed Martin is working to integrate 5G technology onto satellites to provide mobile connectivity to the most desolate corners of the planet. Others, meanwhile, are using satellite imagery to manage supply chains, optimize revenues and tackle global challenges like extreme weather and climate change.

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“There are satellites that are like an early warning system for forest fires. They can help direct experts to the right places so they can address them before they become more serious,” said Gauthier, whose company uses satellite imagery to monitor industrial sites for greenhouse gas emissions that can harm not only the environment but also – in the case of explosive methane, for instance – people and property.

“The advantage of satellites is that you get a global view of the entire planet, which means you can start seeing things at scale that you normally wouldn’t be able to see,” Gauthier continued. “It makes a huge difference in being able to address planetary problems.”

The benefits to businesses are as salient as the benefits to society.

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“Agricultural companies, like Corteva and Bayer, utilize our data to evaluate their crop yields, assess irrigation needs and make predictive production models,” said the Planet spokesperson.

That kind of information is essential to ensuring efficiency, as every link in the supply chain can be connected through a satellite network that facilitates better collaboration and forecasting. Imagine how it might transform logistics if you could track fleets of vehicles, for example, or even specific goods.

“​​It’s also an easier way to gather really useful data for businesses for them to adjust how they operate and serve their customers a lot better,” explained Gauthier, who said that “really useful data” can fundamentally impact the bottom line. 

“Having that data and getting it in real time to know where efficiencies can be made reduces costs – money that you can reinvest in the company or in your people.”

Needle in a Haystack

There’s one problem with the exponential growth in satellite data: There’s too much of it for human eyes alone to process. Fortunately, computers can do a lot of the heavy lifting.

“We’re harnessing machine learning and AI to combine datasets and extract as much insight as possible so that you can really make good use of that data,” Gauthier said.

Also vital is edge computing, which is helping companies make sense of satellite data quicker.

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“You’ll see a lot more processing … on the satellites,” said Rich Carter, director for business development at Lockheed Martin Space Mission Solutions.

 “It drives the speed of need. It gets the data into the hands of the users faster. That’s the key. Technology is going to keep getting better and we’re going to be able to get more data, so we need to do edge processing and get information to a user faster.”

Onboard processing is integral, as each satellite is outputting more data than ever before.

“Ten years ago you might have been getting satellite imagery, but it was megabytes,” Carter continued. “Now, due to HD imagery, you’re doing terabytes a day of information.”

In the past, the only way to process information was to manually analyze printouts or computer screens. Now, thanks to cloud computing, you can automatically integrate nodes, including both new and legacy systems, to yield better insights, faster.

“Lockheed Martin is investing heavily in using cloud-based solutions,” Carter said.

“If you want to reach as many people as possible in real time on their devices, the answer is the cloud. Our processing can sit in the cloud and make sure it’s all connected. More and more customers are going to the cloud every day.”

Startups like GHGSat also are bullish on the cloud.

“Moving to cloud infrastructure makes a lot of sense because it allows us to let people interact and interface with the data a lot quicker,” Gauthier said. “Once you have large quantities of data and you want the interaction to be very nimble, using cloud computing becomes very important.”

In the hands of users – for example, first responders looking for survivors after a disaster, scientists predicting the trajectory of a storm, private companies quantifying their carbon footprint or militaries planning a rescue operation – that kind of speed can improve lives on Earth and perhaps even save them.

“The possibilities are limitless in terms of what can be done in space,” said Gauthier.

Chase Guttman is a technology writer. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, Emmy-winning drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman

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