The Open Sky

Essay by Lars Erik Schönander: “Any time you walk outside, satellites may be watching you from space. There are currently more than 8,000 active satellites in orbit, including over a thousand designed to observe the Earth.

Satellite technology has come a long way since its secretive inception during the Cold War, when a country’s ability to successfully operate satellites meant not only that it was capable of launching rockets into Earth orbit but that it had eyes in the sky. Today not only governments across the world but private enterprises too launch satellites, collect and analyze satellite imagery, and sell it to a range of customers, from government agencies to the person on the street. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites bring the Internet to places where conventional coverage is spotty or compromised. Satellite data allows the United States to track rogue ships and North Korean missile launches, while scientists track wildfires, floods, and changes in forest cover.

The industry’s biggest technical challenge, aside from acquiring the satellite imagery itself, has always been to analyze and interpret it. This is why new AI tools are set to drastically change how satellite imagery is used — and who uses it. For instance, Meta’s Segment Anything Model, a machine-learning tool designed to “cut out” discrete objects from images, is proving highly effective at identifying objects in satellite images.

But the biggest breakthrough will likely come from large language models — tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT — that may soon allow ordinary people to query the Earth’s surface the way data scientists query databases. Achieving this goal is the ambition of companies like Planet Labs, which has launched hundreds of satellites into space and is working with Microsoft to build what it calls a “queryable Earth.” At this point, it is still easy to dismiss their early attempt as a mere toy. But as the computer scientist Paul Graham once noted, if people like a new invention that others dismiss as a toy, this is probably a good sign of its future success.

This means that satellite intelligence capabilities that were once restricted to classified government agencies, and even now belong only to those with bountiful money or expertise, are about to be open to anyone with an Internet connection…(More)”.