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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Data from Earth-gazing satellites is key for scientists hoping to understand and track disease outbreaks including the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: A satellite's view can allow health researchers to understand the context of an outbreak in a way other tools cannot, and it has the potential to help scientists predict when and where the next infectious disease outbreak may occur.

What's happening: Companies like Planet and Maxar are able to track empty parking lots, roads and businesses to understand the economic impacts of the pandemic.

  • Satellites are also able to see the flow of people from one place to another, which could allow scientists to trace outbreaks of the disease in densely populated areas.

Details: Scientists are in the midst of collecting data about possible ecological factors that may have led to the current pandemic.

  • The data may also feed models that can help explain how the coronavirus transmits between people and spreads around the world.
  • "We'll look at that data, and we'll really be able to map out, not just the spread of the disease from the migration patterns of people but the recovery process," public health researcher Timothy Ford of the University of Massachusetts told Axios.

The big picture: Satellite data can also help scientists predict when and how new viruses may jump from animals into human populations.

  • Photos from space reveal where people are encroaching on animal habitats.
  • Satellite photos are also used to track vegetation, rainfall and other factors in the four-corners region of the U.S. that put the area at a high risk for hantavirus outbreaks.
  • Previous studies have also shown how environmental factors that play into outbreaks of diseases like Ebola can be seen and predicted using data gathered from orbit.

Yes, but: Robust models require multiple data points and it will likely take more than a dozen outbreaks of these types of coronaviruses to accurately predict when and where the next might occur.

  • "I can definitely say to you that we don't have enough information about SARS-like coronaviruses yet, and hopefully we won't because it would take 15 or 20 more such emergence events," Townsend Peterson, a researcher at the University of Kansas who uses remote sensing data, told Axios.

What's next: Scientists hope to eventually use machine learning and AI to help automate outbreak prediction by quickly analyzing the wealth of data beamed back from orbit.

  • "With the advances in computational capacity and in modeling, people are coming up with new ways to look at these big data sets," Lindsay Campbell, a professor at the University of Florida, told Axios.
  • Governments and commercial companies are also making their data available to researchers so that scientists can find new ways to understand how environments change over time, possibly contributing to health outcomes.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
17 mins ago - Science

A new NASA astronaut corps for the next era in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA's next crewed missions to the Moon will need a larger, differently-trained and multi-skilled astronaut corps to deliver on the agency's ambitions.

Why it matters: NASA has plans to fly astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2025 and ultimately establish a long-term presence there. That goal requires a robust corps with new, specialized training in what it takes to live and work on the Moon — and NASA needs to start planning now.

China builds its own movie empire

Expand chart
Data: Gower Street citing Comscore; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

China blocked all four of Disney's Marvel movies from being released in its theaters last year, a grim sign for U.S. film giants being squeezed out of the world's fastest-growing box office.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is using domestic films as a key conduit for mass messaging aimed at achieving political goals, leaving little room for foreign views.

Distrust in political, media and business leaders sweeps the globe

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Trust in government is collapsing, especially in democracies, according to a new global survey.

Why it matters: People also don't think media or business leaders are telling them the truth, and this suspicion of multiple societal institutions is pushing people into smaller, more insular circles of trust.