Wildfires in Alberta, Canada are seen from DigitalGlobe's satellite imagery.

Wildfires in Alberta, Canada are seen from DigitalGlobe's satellite imagery.

The Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada’s Alberta province is not yet under control and the job of estimating damage is just beginning. In both of these efforts satellite images will be valuable. They provide detailed views on conditions across the charred expanse of more than 700,000 acres. Not long ago, pictures from satellites were the province of cold war spy masters. But now, clear pictures of the entire earth in almost real time are widely available, offering critical insights on regional water shortages, real estate development, refugee crises, agricultural productivity and much more. We ask: What are pictures from above teaching us about life on earth?


  • Walter Scott Founder, chief technical officer and executive vice president, Digital Globe
  • Peggy Agouris Dean, college of science George Mason University
  • Phil Smith Senior space analyst, The Tauri Group
  • Robbie Schingler Co-founder, chief strategy officer, Planet Labs

Fighting Wildfires From The Sky

When a massive blaze began to tear through Alberta’s Fort McMurray in May, fire and rescue teams started to take down flames on the ground.

But DigitalGlobe took to the sky, tracking the fire via satellite imagery from space.

The company’s FirstLook team tracked the wildfire’s growth each day, identifying damage and direct relief workers to the right areas on the ground.

“It is critical to understand the landscape in a time like this; actively identifying passable roads and impacted areas can save resources and time,” the group wrote on its blog.

This image, for instance, shows one area of Alberta before the fire — with healthy vegetation in bright red and dead/burnt vegetation in dark colors — and after the fire, with damaged land seen in dark colors and grays.

Satellite images from Digital Globe show a section of Alberta, Canada before (left) and after (right) wildfires tore through the region in May. The red areas of the image show healthy vegetation; the black and gray areas are those burned by the fire.

The group is also using new Shortwave Infrared (SWIR) Imagery that cuts through smoke to more accurately identify fires.

Move the slider to see the image on the right, and uncover what can be seen with SWIR imagery: the smoke disappears, and the hot spots in the fire become clearly visible.

Scroll through the gallery below for more before/after images.

Photos: Alberta's Wildfire

Watch: Apple's New Headquarters Takes Shape — From The Sky

Digital Globe has been tracking the progress of Apple’s new headquarters from the sky. Watch this time lapse of its progress from December 2012 to September 2015.

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All photos ©2016 DigitalGlobe



  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. We've gotten used to the many things to be learned from increasingly sophisticated microscopes, but now we have macroscopes. Images from satellites that show us our world in stunning new ways. Here to talk about how we're using satellite images, Walter Scott of Digital Globe, Peggy Agouris of George Mason University and Phil Scott (sic), senior space analyst of the Tauri Group. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you all for being here.

  • 11:07:42

    MS. PEGGY AGOURISThank you for having us.

  • 11:07:44

    MR. PHIL SMITHGreat to be here. Thank you.

  • 11:07:45

    MR. WALTER SCOTTThanks to be here.

  • 11:07:46

    REHMWalter, if I could start with you. Give us a little background, a short history of the satellite industry.

  • 11:07:56

    SCOTTSure. So back in the 1960s, the Corona Program of the United States, which was a way of looking at the Soviet Union, was probably the first where satellites were looking at the Earth. And it was something that both the United States and the Soviet Union used as a way of keeping an eye on the other to keep the Cold War cold, so that nations could act in the basis of facts, not the basis of fear.

  • 11:08:23

    REHMAnd that was called the Corona?

  • 11:08:25

    SCOTTThe Corona, like the beer.

  • 11:08:27


  • 11:08:29

    SCOTTAnd roll the clock forward to the mid-1970s, I think 1974 when the U.S. launched Landsat, which was a much lower resolution satellite, but it was for Earth observation to look at changes in land cover and the like. Move to the mid-1980s and I think the public awareness grew with Spot, which was a French satellite, that if you remember when Chernobyl had its meltdown in 1986…

  • 11:09:02

    REHMI do indeed.

  • 11:09:04

    SCOTT…Spot was what provided images to the entire world, so that the world could see behind the iron curtain.

  • 11:09:11


  • 11:09:13

    SCOTTAnd then in 1992, I started Digital Globe, which was really on the heels of the end of the Cold War. And roll the clock forward to the present and satellite images are on everybody's mobile phone.

  • 11:09:27

    REHMSo now satellite imagery is being used by other countries as well, I presume.

  • 11:09:34

    SCOTTAbsolutely. In fact, I'd say that there are probably two billion people around the world who use satellite imagery, whether they know it or not. If you've ever looked at a map on a phone, chances are it's satellite imagery.

  • 11:09:49

    REHMAnd where are we now, Phil, in terms of our capabilities with satellite imagery?

  • 11:09:59

    SMITHYeah, so to kind of piggy back on what Walter said, we kind of look at it as three eras of remote sensing. The first era was 1960 to about 1991. And we're talking about government-owned satellites motivated to do intelligence gathering. These satellites are very expensive, they're very capable, they're very large. And the government was the only customer, if you want to think of it that way.

  • 11:10:26

    SMITHThen you have the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act, and that's the beginning of the commercial satellite sensing era, if you want to call it that. So there's some legacy that goes in from the previous era into this second era. Again, about 1992 until about 2009. These satellites remain pretty expensive, pretty large, very capable. And at this point you're selling imagery.

  • 11:10:52

    SMITHNow, we're going from about 2010 into the present day. And we're talking about something quite a bit different. Instead of imagery, we're talking about selling data. Not selling pixels as much. You have new systems coming online that are based on CubeSats, which are 10 centimeter cube satellites. So you can imagine that. They're relatively inexpensive, between about $300,000 to about $500,000 for stacking three of them together to make a satellite that's about the size of a loaf of bread.

  • 11:11:22

    SMITHAnd you can launch several of these at a time. So you're talking about very large constellations of many satellites. These things cover the Earth and not at the same resolution, necessarily. They're optical. There are some systems that will have radar as well, which is also useful for a variety of applications. So now we're seeing upwards around 16 to 17 new companies, new systems that will come online over the next several years.

  • 11:11:47

    REHMAll right. And to you, Peggy Agouris. Tell us about the satellites that are up there now and who owns them.

  • 11:11:58

    AGOURISThat's a very good question. Well, as Phil said, we moved from having governments really controlling missions to launch satellites and use the data that have -- that were collected, into privatization of this. And that means that we have a different way of looking at things. Government now -- the United States government and other governments are customers now. And they're not the owners of what's happening there.

  • 11:12:24

    AGOURISAlso, we have a bigger expectation on behalf of the public to have access to this data that is being collected. And that is generating a lot of questions and a lot of issues. Now, to your question, who owns. Well, the people who launch own. But then the question becomes also, where do we draw the line in terms of what we can and cannot collect, what we should and should not collect. Airspace, I mean, this is another interesting topic. Remember, I think it was in the '40s that FAA was created to really regulate who owns the airspace.

  • 11:12:57

    AGOURISNow, we have a different kind of topic, vertically, how we really own the airspace. So above your house, is it yours? Up to a certain feet it is. Then beyond that is blank. And then above that is owned by the country. So there are a lot of questions that are related to not only who owns the satellite systems, per se, but also how to operate, what it -- to disseminate what is the interest that we get from the public into the issues of data information and privacy.

  • 11:13:34

    REHMAnd, Walter Scott, on that issue of privacy, what kind of data is being collected, how is it being used?

  • 11:13:44

    SCOTTSo the quality of the data is best described by resolution. Resolution is how sharp the picture is. And so the quality of data that's collected from satellites today, from the commercial industry, gets down to a resolution that is about 30 centimeters or about a foot. That means that one pixel on the image is about a foot. So a person on the image might be a couple of dots, not able to recognize an individual.

  • 11:14:16

    REHMYou can't recognize a person. You can see a figure.

  • 11:14:22

    SCOTTYou can see a dot, basically, in the scene.

  • 11:14:24


  • 11:14:25

    SCOTTNow, you can see cars, you can see buildings, obviously.

  • 11:14:29

    REHMCan you tell what kind of car?

  • 11:14:32

    SCOTTYou can tell the difference -- with our latest satellites, you can tell the difference between, for example, a pickup truck, a convertible, a sedan, but I wouldn't be able to tell you that it was…

  • 11:14:43

    REHMA Chevy or a Ford?

  • 11:14:44

    SCOTTRight, or a Prius.

  • 11:14:45


  • 11:14:46

    SCOTTMaybe a Prius you might be able to recognize.

  • 11:14:47

    REHMMaybe a Prius. How come?

  • 11:14:51

    SCOTTHow come I wouldn't be able to tell a Chevy or a Ford?

  • 11:14:52

    REHMYeah, how come you might be able to tell a Prius?

  • 11:14:56

    SCOTTPrius is a somewhat unique shape and a unique size. And so one of the things you can do from satellites is you can measure. In fact, what we think about, you know, to build on the earlier comment, the kind of data that we get out of satellites, beyond just showing a picture, we call it geospatial big data. And it's about finding, counting and measuring things. So finding where are all the airplanes to monitor air traffic, or I should say airplanes on the ground across an entire country.

  • 11:15:32

    SCOTTOr where is all of the construction that's taking place in a country like China. Counting, that's one example. Measuring how much land is under cultivation and with what kind of crops. So those are the kind of questions that you can answer with satellite data.

  • 11:15:51

    REHMHelp me understand the huge amount of data that's being collected. I gather that with the Earth spinning once each 24 hours, you can actually collect data from every part of that Earth in 24 hours.

  • 11:16:17

    AGOURISYes. Yes, you can. And it used to be that satellite systems had to really wait a few days in order to revisit the same place and that has improved dramatically with the availability of so much up there. This has created higher resolutions. Like Walter said, resolution is how sharp an image is, but it's…

  • 11:16:43


  • 11:16:43

    AGOURIS…also goes beyond that. How many times you can revisit the same place, that is called temporal resolution. That means that, can I see something as it evolves, a phenomenon as it evolves, a flood as it happens. Because an image is static thing, so you get a snapshot of one temporal instance. But if I can revisit this frequently, it means I have several snapshots of the same phenomenon as it evolves. That has really increased dramatically recently.

  • 11:17:14

    AGOURISSo we have a ton of data, to put it, you know, very plainly. We have what Walter said, geospatial, big data. What do we do with this data? There is -- this is a bigger issue for the research community that I'm representing and the people who have been working in this. We have this data. We are collecting it constantly. But how do we get all we can get out of this data and what is it that we can get out of this data and how frequently? And how many manpower do we need to do this? Now, we go into another area, which is automating things.

  • 11:17:46

    REHMAll right. And we'll talk about that further. Peggy Agouris is dean of the college of science at George Mason University. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about satellite imagery, how it's expanding, how we're getting faster, bigger, better pictures of what's happening all over the world. We're joined now by Robbie Schingler. he's co-founder of Planet Labs. Please, Robbie, explain to us what Planet Labs is doing.

  • 11:20:32

    MR. ROBBIE SCHINGLERSure, so it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Diane.

  • 11:20:35

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:20:36

    SCHINGLERFor including us. So Planet Labs, we're a relatively new company. We're about five years old. And what we do is we build and launch small imaging satellites, but we build them at scale so that we have many of them in space. That allows for us to do a daily update of the entire planet. So you heard this before, when people were talking about this third phase of remote sensing, and largely this is driven by what is happening here on Earth.

  • 11:21:02

    SCHINGLERWe are going through a sensor revolution, and we see that with the power of processing in our phones in our pockets to potentially automated, autonomous driving cars. And we see that with drones and so forth. And what we did at Planet Labs was take that innovation and bring it to the satellite segment and just treat the satellite like a very remote sensor. And with that we were able to come up with a new mission, and that mission at Planet is to image the whole world every day.

  • 11:21:33

    REHMThe whole world every day to what extent? What are you particularly looking at or for?

  • 11:21:44

    SCHINGLERSo by monitoring the whole world, we're able to see -- and every day, so this is temporal resolution.

  • 11:21:52


  • 11:21:53

    SCHINGLERIt's a very fresh imagery. We're able to see global change. And so this allows for us to then understand the state of the world as it is right now and use that with powerful algorithms to make better decisions. So for instance while we have great temporal resolution, which means it's very fresh data, it's always updated, our resolution is three meters per pixel, which is about an order of magnitude more course than Walter Scott and Digital Globe, which is extremely high-resolution imagery that is used for many, many applications.

  • 11:22:25

    SCHINGLERAnd our application is very complementary, where we can count trees, but we can't necessarily see the types of cars. So it's more course, but it's always on, always updated, and with that we can see global change. So whether it is deforestation occurring, to understanding water securities, how much water are in aquifers, to agriculture. So agriculture is a very large, large market for us. Farmers are able to see and monitor the health and status of their crops.

  • 11:22:57

    REHMSo in fact what's happening is that farmers then purchase from you the imagery that you are collecting and make decisions based on that imagery?

  • 11:23:13

    SCHINGLERThat is correct. So it can go directly to farmers. Where we are today, over the next couple of years, there will be a proliferation of new companies, start-up companies, that are getting access to this contextual information, that they can then build their own applications on top of. And there are countless numbers of applications that could occur. So what we provide is a platform for entrepreneurs and for academic organizations and companies and governments to get access to this contextual information feeds and be able to build their own applications and ask their own questions, get their own answers.

  • 11:23:49

    REHMTell me about the Open California Project.

  • 11:23:55

    SCHINGLERYeah, so we -- in this third wave of what's happening in remote sensing, there hasn't really been unleashed the amount of data and the right types of tools for IT specialists, people who are doing computer vision work or training computers in order to see what it is that they can see. And so what we did is we opened up all of California as free and open data to allow for people to get access to that and see what types of things that they can identify.

  • 11:24:31

    SCHINGLERSo some of the things that we've seen is there's a small company that in a weekend, they were able to count all of the ships in port in the San Diego Harbor, and it was all done via some open algorithms that they were able to do that. We've had a company or a hack-a-thon that actually occurred at a company that they were able to then do a fire alert system through California. So if you recall, a major drought in California over the last year, and as a result, there were dozens of fires that were simultaneously happening, and they were able to train algorithms in order to look for these fires and set alerts.

  • 11:25:08

    SCHINGLERSo this is just the very beginning of what could happen when this global change information is available via the Web with the right types of tools and the avenue for people to contribute.

  • 11:25:21

    REHMSo to you, Phil Smith, Robbie just mentioned fires. What about this massive fire in Canada? To what extent have people been able through this satellite imagery to kind of see where it's going to perhaps help guide those who want to slow down the progression of that fire?

  • 11:25:57

    SMITHSure, I can answer a little bit of that, but I'll definitely punt it to Walter, of course.

  • 11:26:02


  • 11:26:03

    SMITHBut I'm aware as a reader of seeing the Digital Globe images of that area in Canada that you're talking about, and those images were updated daily, and you can see, using what's called short-wave infrared, you can see where the heat from the fire exists. You can see what it has done to the area, and you can plan accordingly in disaster management. So satellite imagery is ideal because it's a lot less expensive than sending an airplane over there. You don't need a pilot, for example. So that's quite a bit.

  • 11:26:39

    REHMAnd a lot less dangerous.

  • 11:26:40

    SMITHIndeed it is.

  • 11:26:41

    REHMObviously, Walter.

  • 11:26:41

    SCOTTExactly. Well, the other thing that the latest satellites let us do, these are Digital Globe's latest satellites, something called Worldview 3, the shortwave infrared doesn't just tell you how hot the fire is, it actually can see through smoke. And one of the problems you have with a fire is that the smoke makes it very hard to see what's on the ground.

  • 11:27:03

    REHMSo dense, yes.

  • 11:27:04

    SCOTTIt's completely opaque, but the shortwave infrared can penetrate the smoke all the way down to the ground so that you're seeing not just the areas that are burning but the areas that have been burned. And that's been helpful as far as both enabling the residents of the area to understand what's been happening and perhaps equally important, if not more importantly, enabling the people who are fighting the first to have a clear picture of what's on the ground.

  • 11:27:33

    AGOURISAnd this is one example of the kind of applications that you can really conduct with satellite imagery, and I would like to take it a little bit further into some areas that are not as well-known as phone maps, for instance, And thinking about penetrating clouds for weather phenomena, thinking about thermal imagery that can really detect whether a vehicle or an airplane was parked somewhere and left because of the footprint that it left because the temperature of the ground changes.

  • 11:28:02

    AGOURISAnd you can see that, you know, you have pictures that show shadows of vehicles or objects that are no longer there. We're talking about looking at houses and seeing whether their insulation is working by looking at the temperature of the roofs. We're talking about applications which are like this, like giving you information that no other medium can give you at the cost that a satellite imagery costs and also with the ease that we have in getting access to this.

  • 11:28:33

    AGOURISSo these are just a few examples that are a little bit beyond what the public understands. But I also want to add one more interesting thing, which is the combination of satellite imagery with other sources of information and other sources of communication like social media that has really started creating a revolution in how we look at things.

  • 11:28:54

    AGOURISI mean, we used to look at the pixel as the end product, I mean, how sharp it is, what kind of information we can get out of that, but this is not enough because a pixel is a static thing that gives you information about a feature. We are looking now at the human factor, how to combine satellite imagery with communications through social media, understanding people as they interact, the connections that exist between physical space and humans, which is really creating a much more wide and impressive way of understanding and monitoring the world around us.

  • 11:29:29

    REHMI would also think, Phil Smith, you're into privacy issues.

  • 11:29:35

    SMITHThat's true, that's true, and we were just discussing this before the show is we're coming into a point where we need to assess what we mean by privacy because sort of the terms we are living on the grid is a good way to look at it. But part of the concern that people have is the idea that we can look at you, but I don't know that you're looking at me kind of thing.

  • 11:30:01

    REHMExactly, exactly.

  • 11:30:02

    SMITHAnd that was something that Walter pointed out. The other part I wanted to mention is that ironically, in terms of remote sensing imagery, the product isn't necessarily going to be an image of you as a consumer. Maybe you're looking at competitive intelligence information. I'm Shop A, and I want to find out how Shop B is doing by counting how many cars are in the parking lot at various times during the day. I don't need to look at an image of the cars. I don't want to do the work necessary to figure out what that means.

  • 11:30:32

    SMITHSo you can use software to do that artificial intelligence, analysts can do that for you, and so forth. So the end product net is data. We need data.

  • 11:30:42

    REHMBut all of you thus far are talking about this in sort of peaceful, benign terms. Phil -- sorry, Robbie, what about these satellite images being used in cyber warfare?

  • 11:31:04

    SCHINGLERSure, so space has always been a key component of national needs, including both civil and military activities. And we were talking before about there being multiple pieces of information that all get aggregated together in order to have a better understanding of the play of the land in order to make a decision. So that's a decision for civil purposes or actually for military activities.

  • 11:31:32

    SCHINGLERBut what we're seeing today with new sensors in space, they're commercial first. They are thinking about the applications on how to make the data and the tools available at the speed of distance so that it could also work at scale, so it can work at scale globally, as well. And it so happens that it may be some great utility of combining that information with other government-owned satellites that are primarily used for those purposes, but this is the -- this is the new chapter that we're in is the commercialization of space and doing it for civil purposes.

  • 11:32:10


  • 11:32:11

    SCOTTSo the question is about space and cyber? I think the -- on the one hand, space is pretty far away, and you tend to think of cyber as more what's somebody going to be doing to put spyware on my desktop. So the two of them seem somewhat far away. Where are you going with the question?

  • 11:32:43

    REHMI'm wondering specifically about Osama bin Laden.

  • 11:32:47

    SCOTTDon't know.

  • 11:32:51

    AGOURISWell, no doubt satellite imagery is a powerful tool, and before satellite imagery there were airplanes that were flying, collecting aerial imagery. But it's really the distance that makes it a little bit more scary because we don't know that it's out there, and we don't know what it sees. But no doubt about it, it's a very powerful tool. We were able to really discover and prepare for a mission, The Osama bin Laden mission, I mean, has been really, you know, prepared through imagery and other kinds of data. And that was a good thing. I mean, we were able to address a threat without putting a lot of people in danger.

  • 11:33:31

    AGOURISNow with the commercialization of satellites, we have a different kind of topic here, I mean, related to what the question is, which is if a company controls the data that is collected, what are the limits, what are the boundaries. And this is something that needs to be discussed.

  • 11:33:48

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We have many callers. Going to open the phones. Let's go first to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Austin, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:06

    AUSTINYes, my question was, you guys have spoken a lot to the technical applications of satellite imagery. I was curious of what the effects on social consciousness and how a person or people groups see themselves in the world as a result of this technology with the lack of national borders and such.

  • 11:34:26

    REHMThat's a very interesting question.

  • 11:34:30

    SCOTTSo there was a recent Pulitzer Prize that was awarded to the Associated Press, and that was for exposing a slave fishing operation in Southeast Asia. And Digital Globe used its satellites to provide the smoking gun that enabled the authorities in Indonesia to roll up this slave fishing ring because we showed a refrigerated cargo ship, refrigerated fish cargo ship, pulled up against two slave fishing boats, and it was right there in the middle of the ocean.

  • 11:35:13

    SCOTTAnd the fact that image was there was part of what I think enabled that story to reach so many people that not only was it the proof that ultimately led to the freeing of 2,000 slaves, but using satellite imagery to document things from halfway around the world is in fact a way of bringing them home to people that would otherwise not -- not be aware.

  • 11:35:40

    REHMInteresting, Phil?

  • 11:35:43

    SCHINGLERSo this is -- this is Robbie. So the social consciousness that you talk about is -- is perhaps the most profound thing that's going to happen when we responsibly enable a transparent planet. So if we think about what people think of today about the world, they'll go on to their favorite Google Maps or Apple maps and then -- and then look through some stuff or see visually, you know, on a globe like Google Earth did, it really kind of told stories in a new and unique way.

  • 11:36:10

    SCHINGLERAnd what we're going to be able to see now is something that hopefully astronauts get all the time, which is called the overview effect, right. When they look down, they see the fragility of our home planet. They see it without borders, and they also see the fires, and they see the effect of human behavior.

  • 11:36:29

    REHMSo you're saying a new appreciation.

  • 11:36:31

    SCHINGLERAbsolutely. So -- and we don't know entirely, societally, what that's going to be like. But being able to give people that image and be able to search and discover and discover and find it for themselves, ask their own questions, will actually make the world more connected and smaller.

  • 11:36:48


  • 11:36:49

    AGOURISWell, people were always fascinated about their place in the world. That's why we started creating maps. It was their way of plotting the world around them and really looking at them and seeing where they are. But maps had always had the borders marked on it. This is really, at least, you know, recent history. So now we're looking at something that is totally different, as Robbie said.

  • 11:37:09

    AGOURISImagine looking at nighttime picture of activity of people celebrating Ramadan or celebrating something. You understand how they entertain themselves, how they live. And this gives you a closeness to them that you didn't have before.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMThat's a very interesting point. All right, taking a short break. We've got lots of callers waiting, tweets, emails. We'll get to as many as we can.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. I'm going to go directly to David, in San Diego, Calif. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:13

    DAVIDThank you. With more and more companies launching CubeSats or consolations of small satellites into lower Earth orbit, is there a valid concern about those items interfering with missile defense systems or the launching or targeting of ballistic missiles, for example?

  • 11:40:34


  • 11:40:35

    SCHINGLERSure. There are many new satellites that are going up into space. And while your particular concern, I don't believe, is a concern any time soon, what there is is how we operate safely in this global domain, this global good of -- in space. And this is largely known as space debris. And civilly we call it space traffic management, just like there's air traffic management for the -- for planes, we will need to have space traffic management for space.

  • 11:41:09

    REHMBut you don't have it now? You don't have it now. So…

  • 11:41:12

    SCHINGLERWe don't have it today. Yeah, it's primarily been driven by government, organizations that have been operating and now, over the last half dozen years, there are a lot more new commercial entrants that are coming in. So over the course of this decade I think that we will actually get toward a pretty good, robust system in order to make sure that we can operate freely and safely in space.

  • 11:41:30

    REHMWhere is the beginning of that tracking system? Has it begun? Go ahead, Walter.

  • 11:41:38

    SCOTTSo there are government systems that track satellites and maintain a catalog of not only satellites, but also satellites that have died or pieces of space debris. The catalogs are not complete because there are some things that are too small to be tracked, but which can still do damage. For example, I think there was recently a small piece of debris that impacted a window on the Space Station and created, you know, a big crack in the window. It didn't let the air, thankfully.

  • 11:42:12

    SCOTTSo the increased number of satellites is going, as Robbie says, to drive a need for more coordination and just rules of the road, just, you know, just like you don't…

  • 11:42:24


  • 11:42:25

    SCOTT…throw litter out of your car, you shouldn't be leaving pieces of debris.

  • 11:42:28

    REHMWell, but people do, unfortunately. All right. Let's go to Ahmed in Baltimore, Md. You're on the air. Ahmed, you're on the air.

  • 11:42:40

    AHMEDOh, hi. Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:42:42


  • 11:42:44

    AHMEDIt's a fascinating conversation. I think that there are analogies to many other areas of technology and big data in medical research, etcetera. And I'm really wondering what the ethics are behind this, what governs making public data that is acquired using public funds, and not just the ethics of the privacy issue, but also, you know, the fact that the slippery slope could lead to big brother.

  • 11:43:09

    REHMPhil Smith, do you want to comment?

  • 11:43:12

    SMITHThat's a good question. So a couple of things to note. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration distributes licenses for commercial operators of satellites that are for-profit when they're taking images of the Earth. So there are a couple of mechanisms in place to address certain issues relating to, you know, what you're gonna be doing with the data and so forth. As far as privacy, though, I'm not as familiar with that subject.

  • 11:43:42


  • 11:43:42

    AGOURISWell, there are expectations of making data available when the taxpayers are behind a mission, which was really the old paradigm. I mean, now with the commercial moral jumping into this we have different kinds of expectations. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, there are no specific guidelines yet that would really govern this, but you have to remember, technology runs faster than policies and laws. And this has occurred with the GPS technology, which is another analogous example.

  • 11:44:15

    AGOURISI mean, it used to be military and now it's everywhere. And so we have to really catch up with what this creates. But there is also a bigger concern here. Well, how do we draw the line between policies that are dictated by companies based on their interests, as opposed to government regulated processes at usage? And these things need to be addressed holistically, not independently. Because we have synergy between the commercial and the government sector. So…

  • 11:44:49

    REHMAnd we have a tweet, which says, "With the power of this data, do people have a right to it, and thereby the benefits of keeping NASA data open, for example, for research?" Robbie?

  • 11:45:10

    SCHINGLERYeah, so I had a fortunate career to work at NASA for about 10 years. And all NASA data that it actually collects becomes open data for public use. And so that is for civil use, to make sure that there is open and public data. And in fact, as algorithms get more sophisticated, people are finding interesting signals inside this archived data.

  • 11:45:38

    SCHINGLERAnd so there continues to be public good that come out of these remotely sent data that actually comes up there. And as we get into this new era of contextual information feeds to allow for anybody to get access to this information, there will be a lot more societal benefits that come out of that.

  • 11:45:55

    REHMAll right. To Andrew, in Pittsburgh, Pa. You're on the air.

  • 11:46:01

    ANDREWHey, good morning.

  • 11:46:02


  • 11:46:04

    ANDREWI'm calling -- I'm actually a doctoral student at Princeton University and study (unintelligible) conflicts. And I'm calling because you raised the question to your panelists about sort of Osama bin Laden raid and sort of national security uses of the imagery. And I just thought you and your listeners might be interested to know that there's actually a lot that's being done with satellite imagery by security study scholars.

  • 11:46:28

    ANDREWKind of a cool piece of research that recently came out looked at, you know, there's been an effort to understand sort of ISIS financing and how well the organization is doing. And a couple of my colleagues at Princeton actually used satellite imagery to assess the cloud (unintelligible) off of oil refineries, then back out kind of revenue estimates for the organization. So that's it. Just wanted to kind of -- thought that might kind of speak more directly to your question about bin Laden.

  • 11:46:59

    REHMRight. Robbie?

  • 11:47:00

    SCHINGLERYeah, so there is, historically, with remote sensing imagery -- and Walter was talking about this in this first phase, is that level transparency really brought about an understanding -- a shared understanding for what was happening. And so with transparency leads to where policy can come in. And so after the first remote sensing imagery that went up -- satellite that went up there, then the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which actually made that legal, led to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to then curb the proliferation of ICBMs.

  • 11:47:37

    SCHINGLERAnd as we actually grow into this next phase of remote sensing, we're gonna be able to monitor things that we couldn't before. So, for instance, with greater amount of transparency and counting every tree on the planet, we may be able to help to provide financial incentive for countries to -- especially tropical regions around the world, the lungs of the planet, to not cut down their trees.

  • 11:48:00

    SCHINGLERAnd instead, to be able to have performance-based carbon finance. And in order for that to happen, there needs to be a global monitoring system. And that's something that actually could come out of this level of transparency.

  • 11:48:12

    REHMWell, and that's where I was gonna go. Whether there are any international laws in place yet, as to, you know, who said your satellite could monitor Russia or Pakistan or any other country? And if they know that that satellite is up there, could they use something to bring it down? Walter?

  • 11:48:43

    SCOTTSo there was -- back in -- I don't know if it was the '60s or '70s, the Open Skies Treaty and framework that was established that essentially said space is a commons and that it's fine for countries to observe from space. That led to a set of provisions that exist in all of the U.S.-issued remote sensing licenses, called the Sensed State Provision, that says a U.S.-licensed remote sensing operator, satellite operator, if we take a picture of a country, that country has the right to buy it by no less favorable terms then would be available commercially.

  • 11:49:30

    REHMBut suppose that satellite is being used for gathering intelligence. Surely you're not going to share with that same country the very intelligence that you want to gather about that country.

  • 11:49:49

    SCOTTIt's an interesting question, but the way the license language is written, if that country requests it, then we are obligated to make it available.

  • 11:49:58

    REHMI bet that gets rewritten. Go ahead, Peggy.

  • 11:50:02

    AGOURISWell, I think we need to clarify that intelligence can be gathered on imagery as an after product. Like as metadata, as opposed to really having an image be used just for that. So imagery is collected and can be used for a variety of applications. What happens after the image is generated and how it can be used, is something that is very difficult to control. Same thing with, you know, using snapshots of people, you know, on vacation to really detect crime.

  • 11:50:34

    AGOURISThis is not the intended purpose. And so when you have a satellite program that collects imagery, that means that this imagery needs to be processed afterwards to extract the intelligence that could be used for sinister purposes. Which means that there is no way to really have control over what the use of this image is after it's been bought and really, you know, become available.

  • 11:50:59


  • 11:51:00

    SCOTTJust one data point that may help put this in context. If I look at what Digital Globe collects in the space of a year, the land area of the planet is about 150 million square kilometers. In one year we collect about a billion square kilometers. Six times or more the land area of the planet. So it's not about taking a snapshot here or a snapshot there. It's really about the entire planet.

  • 11:51:27

    REHMIt's a continuous snapshot.

  • 11:51:30

    SCOTTIt's a continuous snapshot at high resolution. And to contrast Digital Globe with Planet, Planet is doing a daily snapshot at low resolutions. And we're doing a snapshot with lower frequency, but at much higher resolution. And the two complement each other quite well.

  • 11:51:45

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Brian, in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a concern I'm sure many people have. Go right ahead, Brian.

  • 11:51:58

    BRIANThank you, Diane. My two concerns you briefly touched on earlier. One is the amount of space junk that's already up there in space. And how polluted that it's getting up there with parts from just deploying the satellites themselves.

  • 11:52:18


  • 11:52:18

    BRIANAnd the second on would be the militarization of space, considering the Chinese have taken out that satellite years ago and the millions of pieces are still scattered out there in the -- or space.

  • 11:52:35

    REHMAll right. Sure. Go ahead.

  • 11:52:37

    SMITHYeah, so the lead organization for this, just by default, is the United States Air Force. And they have the capability using optical and radar telescopes on the ground, concentrated on, fortunately, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, as there's less coverage on the Southern Hemisphere, is to track objects that are about four inches and larger on a fairly regular basis. But they ping them because these things don't have transponders on them and so forth. So you aim the telescopes in a certain direction, you know where the satellite or the object will be based on (unintelligible) mechanics. And they can track about 24,000 of these types of objects.

  • 11:53:13

    REHMPhil Smith, he's senior space analyst for the Tauri Group. Pardon me. And you're listening "The Diane Rehm Show." Robbie, I know you wanted to add to that.

  • 11:53:34

    SCHINGLERYeah, so on the -- with space debris, it is a major challenge that we in the global community really need to get our heads around. Part of that is how we operate in space, which we touched on earlier about space traffic management, rules of the road. But the other part we should break down the challenge. The majority of the space debris is up in one particular orbit, which is fairly high.

  • 11:53:54

    SCHINGLERAnd those pieces of debris will be up there for a long time, tens and hundreds of years. And that's the area that's concerned. Where most of the new players, the new entrants that are coming in, they fly way lower so that the satellites only last a couple of years before they -- they're designed to burn up in the upper atmosphere. So the new entrants that are coming in are trying to do that in a responsible way. Planet is one actor -- is one of those such new players that are doing that, to fly low to avoid being hit by space debris or contributing to space debris.

  • 11:54:24

    REHMHere's an email, let's see, from Rob. He says, "I've read we're facing a shortage of weather satellites in the next 10 to 15 years. Will these cube satellite arrays be capable of replacing the older, larger weather satellites?" Walter?

  • 11:54:48

    SCOTTThere are some weather measurements that the smaller satellites can make. And one that's particularly clever is actually using the GPS satellites. So the GPS satellites, the ones that tell you what your position is on the ground, they do that by sending radio waves, very precise radio waves down to the ground. Well, if a satellite happens to be in space and it's looking at another GPS satellite through the upper part of the atmosphere -- so one of them is just about to set below the horizon or just about to rise above the horizon, those radio waves change in a way that tells you about what's in the atmosphere. They'll tell you about moisture and other atmospheric parameters.

  • 11:55:30

    REHMSo could these satellites actually predict weather situations even more accurately than the ones we currently have?

  • 11:55:43

    SCOTTI don't know that it would be more accurately, but is a good contributor to, for example, forecast accuracy for extreme weather events like hurricanes. So it's a very cost-effective way of getting one of the key measurements. And we're interested in seeing what more innovation can happen in that space.

  • 11:56:02

    REHMExactly. And, Robbie, last word. I wanted to get you to think ahead 10 years. Where are we going with this imagery?

  • 11:56:15

    SCHINGLERWell, with the imagery I think we will get to a point where we'll have a real time understanding for the state of the planet. And that's kind of what's happening over the course of this decade. And largely it's driven by the sense of revolution. We understand soil moisture content from weather stations that are all over the world. The connected devices that we have for -- in agriculture tells -- then from remotely sensed imagery, from this imagery that's coming from satellites.

  • 11:56:41

    SCHINGLERAnd then when you combine that with a variety of the storage and compute commoditization that's happening, the so-called infrastructure for big data, you can do some really powerful algorithms to get great insights. So we'll move from a society -- from a global society of being very responsive to the effects of activities, to being more real time, to ultimately get to more prediction.

  • 11:57:04

    REHMAll right. We'll have to leave this fascinating subject there. Thank you all so much. Robbie Schingler, Phil Smith, Walter Scott, Peggy Agouris, thank you for a fascinating program. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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