Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is normally a mid-size town, home to 32,000 people and a big bowling ball manufacturer. But on August 21, its human density more than tripled, as around 100,000 people swarmed toward the total solar eclipse.
Hundreds of miles above the crowd, high-resolution satellites stared down, snapping images of the sprawl.
These satellites belong to a company called DigitalGlobe, and their cameras are sharp enough to capture a book on a coffee table. But at that high resolution, they can only image that book (or the Kentucky crowd) at most twice a day. And a lot can happen between brunch and dinner. So the Earth observation giant is building a new constellation of satellites to fill in the gaps in their chronology. When this new “WorldView Legion” sat-set is finished in 2021, DigitalGlobe will be able to image parts of the planet every 20 minutes, flashing by for photos dozens of times a day.
That’s called “high revisit” satellite imagery, and it’s mostly been the purview of smallsat companies, which can launch more and cheaper satellites to cover more ground more often. The leading smallsat imaging company, Planet, prides itself on capturing the globe’s full landmass every day, mostly at around four meters of resolution—so a Pontiac shows up as about a pixel. Planet has nearly two hundred satellites in orbit, and the smallsat industry at large is out to launch thousands more in the next decade, filling low-Earth orbit and staring down at the world with a gaze of increasing intensity.
Planet and its competitors provide a new service: (slightly fuzzy) images that can show daily changes in a spot on Earth. Traditional satellite companies sometimes have months-long gaps between images of a given spot.
But DigitalGlobe thinks it can provide quality and quantity. Along with WorldView Legion, it is banking on something different: that their customers (governments, oil-drillers, metal miners, retail chain owners) don’t need or want to see the whole planet’s diurnal dynamics. They care about the grittiest details of the places where people are—moving missiles, digging up natural resources, cutting down forests, parking cars for shopping sprees. “A large percentage of the population lives in a really narrow band of latitudes,” says Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s founder and CTO.