Future Space Controls and the Invisible Hand
By NPEC and SCOLNS
Part I: Commercial Space: What Will be Profitable and When?
The working group opened by asking a fundamental question about the nature of commercial space development – is this an area that can and will see profitability, thus incentivizing private sector activity? To help answer these questions the working group discussion was led by a discussant from a private company that is responsible for building and launching satellites.
The Private-Sector Perspective
The discussant first gave an idea of the kind of work that their private company is engaged in. They currently own and operate satellites, which come in three different sizes. The smallest of these, called a “dove,” are about the size of a microwave, and the company manages hundreds of doves operating in low-earth orbit. The purpose of these doves is actually quite simple – to take “a picture of the entire surface of the planet every day.” With regular launches every year, the “constellation” of these doves is constantly expanding, but also upgrading. And while they do not boast the same imagery resolution as defense or intelligence satellites, the sheer number of doves constantly taking photographs allows this company to track global relations and activities in regular increments.
To discuss the benefits of their company, and to detail their role, the expert described some examples for how their niche in the market could be a force within the commercial sector. One example included agriculture, where farmers can save time by photographing crop yields, while governments could better anticipate food shortages. Another example provided was the transportation sector, since having incremental satellite images could allow shipping companies to avoid developing storms. Governments have the ability to track building development, to allow them to know where the best place would be to focus their services. Further examples include human rights groups tracking refugee displacement, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency being better able to allocate necessary aid and resources.
The company does not sell or lease out the satellites themselves, but they do sell the imagery and associated data. Half of the company are software programmers and imagery analysts; and because they are currently collecting over six terabytes of data every single day, the company is heavily reliant on machine learning and artificial intelligence to extractinformation from the massive amount of collected data.
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