Team of new toaster-sized satellites will monitor Earth in near real-time

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has begun deploying 28 toaster-sized satellites built by a Silicon Valley tech company that will monitor the earth faster and more completely than ever before.

Planet Labs, founded by former NASA engineers, recruited a team of Stanford University student to build the satellites in just over two weeks to monitor environmental changes and disasters. Singularity Hub reports NASA began deploying the satellites from the International Space Station in February.

The inexpensive satellites will create the first full set of satellite images spanning all of Earth, with no image older than 90 days, compared to the average image age of three years on Google Earth due to the cost of taking photographs from traditional satellites.

“When you count all of the available satellites with all the different sensors, there’s no one homogenous view of what the Earth looks like in sharp enough resolution to tell us what’s happening,” Planet Labs co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Chris Boshuizen said in an interview.

The company plans to sell the images to mapping companies like Google and to environmental researchers at a discounted rate to track the use of natural resources and patterns like deforestation, which the company hopes will aid in combating environmental dangers.

The satellites could also be used to map disaster areas like the one caused by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, where relief workers had a difficult time assessing widespread, catastrophic damage.

The cost of launching satellites is relative to size — a factor Planet Labs was able to reduce by eight, allowing them to launch more of them and generate a complete and current picture of the entire planet.

“I know some of the other actors in the space industry had looked at this and really didn’t think that this type of application could fit in a box as small as the one we put it in,” Boshuizen said.

The satellites have been approved for two years of use by the Federal Communications Commission, after which they will fall out of low-Earth orbit and burn up in the atmosphere without contributing to already present space junk, and make way for more small satellites to do the same.

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