Issue 16 / Clouds

March 27, 2022
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Omnivorous Analysis

Anne Lee Steele

Where do satellite images come from?

Satellite imagery has woven itself into the fabric of the internet. We recognize these crisp, high-definition, bird’s-eye-view images most commonly from Google Earth—but we employ them in much more besides: from reporting on stuck shipping containers to getting directions to a friend’s house, to tracking forest fires in real time and scrolling through real estate listings. Given their ever-widening range of commercial, consumer, and civic uses, it won’t surprise most people to hear that the industry that produces them (also known as Earth Observation, or EO) is growing at an exponential rate, and is only expected to expand further in the coming years.

Yet despite the prominence of satellite imagery in the geographical imagination of the internet, the imperatives of the industry are much less clear. The corporations that produce them are much less well known, and the military interests that back them remain as murky as ever. The highly visible commercial side of the industry is still deeply intertwined with its classified counterpart, and two companies, Maxar and Planet, have emerged to dominate the industry—supporting civilian functions with one hand, while supplying US defense needs with the other. 

Indeed, the ubiquity of commercial satellite imagery gives nearly anyone godlike powers of reconnaissance and surveillance not that far removed from those enjoyed by militaries and intelligence agencies—a fact that causes no small amount of anxiety within the Pentagon. The pervasiveness and power of their imagery compels us to ask: Where do they come from? And how are they being put to use?

Launching the Industry

The story of satellite imagery begins with military surveillance. The CORONA satellite program was launched in secret by the NRO (the National Reconnaissance Office, whose existence wasn’t declassified until the 1990s) in response to the USSR’s Sputnik-1 in 1958. CORONA ultimately put over 144 satellites into orbit over twelve years. Satellites were soon found to be useful for surveying purposes as well: the oil, gas, and mining industries, as well as climate researchers could make use of satellite imagery in their work. The academic, commercial, and national-security interest in satellite imagery of natural resources culminated in the launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, now called Landsat 1, in 1972. Landsat remains the longest-running satellite imagery program to date.

Following the end of the Cold War in 1992, private companies were permitted to enter the satellite business in the United States, kickstarting the industry that we know today. But the newfangled EO industry never drifted far from its origins in the military-industrial complex. In 1994, defense contractor Lockheed Martin was granted a license to sell commercial satellite high-resolution imagery. In 1995, the first commercial imaging satellite, OrbView-1, was launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation, in partnership with NASA. Soon afterwards, WorldView Imaging Corporation (later called DigitalGlobe) was given the first contract to build and operate a commercial satellite system. As the industry grew during the 2000s, it created new markets and many of the companies we know today. In 2004, Google acquired three geospatial companies that formed the basis for Google Maps. (One of them, Keyhole, had received funding from the CIA.) As the industry has expanded, the number of satellites orbiting the planet has grown: from one in 1958 to over 3,300 in 2020.

Despite the staggering number of satellites, the business of capturing satellite imagery is dominated by a small number of major players. DigitalGlobe and Orbital Sciences (by then called GeoEye) merged in 2013; the resulting corporation, Maxar Technologies, became the largest satellite imagery company in the United States—a monopoly, in effect. Planet, founded by ex-NASA scientists in 2010, initiated a new chapter for the industry, launching small-scale micro satellites that could capture imagery of the entire planet at least once a day. The miniature satellites themselves are called “doves,” ironic given their recently renewed contract with the NRO in late 2021. Planet, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange just weeks later in 2021, has been hailed as an industry disruptor for years. Maxar and Planet have emerged as twin giants of the industry: one supplies high resolution, the other, speed. 

The granularity of satellite imagery can be divided into three categories: low resolution (over 60m/pixel), medium resolution (10–30m/pixel), and high resolution (30cm–5m/pixel). The precise resolution of NRO satellites remains classified but continues to occupy the highest rung, while public research satellites like Landsat 1 capture the medium to low resolution needed for climate science. Historically, commercial satellites have been restricted to selling imagery up to 50cm/pixels (lowered to 40cm in 2014, then 30cm in 2015) despite their capacity to produce much higher resolution, as is the case with Maxar’s satellites, in particular. While Planet satellites aren’t capable of capturing the same sort of resolution (they max out at 50cm/pixel), the sheer number of micro-satellites they have launched means that Planet has the largest constellation of satellites ever assembled. As of 2022, Planet’s doves can capture and transmit imagery at least once a day, and this “guaranteed collection” business model is, in part, responsible for their recent IPO. 

In other words, if Landsat imagery can capture a retreating glacier, Maxar can capture every crack—and Planet can capture its movement day-in, day-out. The NRO satellites? Who knows what they can do.

The GEOINT Singularity

Thanks to their size and technological advantages, Maxar and Planet have become the go-to suppliers of satellite imagery used to document everything from tornado damage to the 2021–2022 military actions in Ukraine. According to its own statements, Maxar “provides 90 percent of the foundational geospatial intelligence used by the US government,” and was initially the sole supplier of imagery to the US government. Since 2019, the NRO has subscribed to Planet’s services (a contract that was recently expanded). Meanwhile, other companies like Satellogic (which recently partnered with Palantir in early 2022) and BlackSky (contracted to the NRO and NASA) have emerged with similar capabilities.

At the same time, the growth of “open source intelligence” (OSINT) and open data initiatives has enabled satellite imagery to be co-opted as both an investigative tool and public good, sometimes even used against the very states and corporations that released their imagery in the first place. Organizations like Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture have used satellite imagery to document human rights abuses, while Bellingcat has done the same for US military bases (both using Planet imagery). OpenStreetMap, an open data project, uses Maxar imagery to create a crowdsourced map of the world (often called the “Wikipedia of maps”). Such civic use of satellite imagery has shifted public access as well, as when Maxar released high-resolution imagery of Israel-Palestine in 2021—imagery that has been historically blurred and kept classified due to US government restrictions. 

This fact is not lost on US intelligence professionals, many of whom fear a looming “GEOINT singularity,” in which public geospatial knowledge may equal that which is known by “experts.” But even the Pentagon understands that OSINT is here to stay—and may even be a resource for the military to exploit, as a DoD strategy report from August 2021 suggests. Similarly, the National Geospatial Intelligence (NGI) agency has emphasized the role of private companies in the geospatial intelligence community, and more such government-commercial partnerships are expected to develop in the coming years. 

For all its pervasiveness online, the increased production of satellite imagery by companies like Maxar and Planet is not necessarily leading to an increased commercial demand to use it. From a business perspective, the thousands of satellites circling overhead are producing an excess of supply, and demand is still dominated by defense agencies. 

Indeed, given how much more advanced NRO satellites must be compared to the commercial industry as a whole (something we have the right to assume, given their classified status—the NRO, for instance, was able to unexpectedly donate two high-resolution telescopes of the same quality as Hubble to NASA), it’s worth asking why the government continues to acquire lower-resolution commercial imagery in the first place. The recent declassification of “Sentient,” an “omnivorous analysis tool” being developed by the NRO, points to their need for vast quantities of satellite imagery to train AI-driven imagery analyses. Could the exigencies of AI be driving the DoD’s continuing support of the industry? On the other hand, buying up imagery could also be a means of controlling the flow of information, pushing the images into the wrong (or right) hands. Could their support be a means of ensuring that satellite imagery is steered in the direction of US military interests?

In either case, we may not ever know for sure—at least not in the near future. But the questions are a reminder that the commercial satellite imagery industry remains impossible to separate from the military applications from which it arose. They are a reminder that the “supply chain” of satellite imagery—the set of companies and institutions that bring the images from above the atmosphere to the apps on our phones—is not necessarily as straightforward as the notion of “surveillance capitalism” might make it seem. In the meantime, this convoluted mix of civil, military, and commercial actors will continue to fill our skies—and our screens—with satellite imagery.

Anne Lee Steele is a fellow of the Internet Society, and co-curator of The Re:Source Project.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 16, "Clouds". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.