October 29, 2019

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1 big thing: There's big data in space but so far not big money

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Space companies are trying to grow a market for the massive amounts of data beamed back from satellites each day.

The big picture: It's cheaper than ever to launch Earth-observing satellites to space, making it easier to collect large amounts of data from orbit.

  • But the market for imaging and analytics companies is still mostly limited to government customers and sophisticated, high-paying users like the oil and gas industry.
"There are very few industries out there that wouldn't in some way benefit from this kind of data. ... How do we make that an efficient and effective process to make that happen? And there's no magical answer to that, but it is going to take a lot of different companies trying different things."
— Krystal Wilson of the Secure World Foundation

What's happening: Companies collecting data from orbit are now offering processing and analysis of it in an effort to expand their revenue and customer base.

  • Planet — a company with more than 100 Earth-gazing satellites in orbit — can image anywhere on Earth each day, and the company sees a future in data analytics.
  • "Our goal to make satellite imagery universally useful to everyone by indexing the objects in every image and developing a database of not just images, but the physical objects in those images," a Planet spokesperson told Axios via email.
  • Spire is also focusing on analyzing its own data for customers interested in weather systems, resource management and other applications.

What's next: Some companies are attempting to gather satellite data from different sources and make it easily available to a wide variety of users.

  • Hypergiant and Dynetics are partnering with one another to make it easier and more efficient to gather and analyze data from space.
  • "Right now, the cost of getting data from space has kept the information flow relatively narrow. However, as we put more satellites into space and we decrease the cost of getting that data, more companies will demand it," Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm said via email.
  • The market for Earth observation and analysis could grow to $7 billion by 2028 from about $3 billion currently, according to Northern Sky Research senior analyst Dallas Kasaboski.

Yes, but: Satellite companies by and large are interested in catering to big government contracts and other large corporations with deep pockets over making their data accessible to the masses, at least for now.

  • "It's one of the reasons why these players are still focused on the bigger fish, because they know that it's a several hundred million dollar program, they have to recoup that cost in a five to 10 year timeframe," Kasaboski told Axios.
  • Creating a new market is also a slow process in general, and this part of the space industry is just at the beginning of this work, Wilson said.

The bottom line: Companies collecting and analyzing Earth-observation data will need more than just government contracts to grow a sustainable market.

2. Tracking satellites through crowdsourcing

Photo: NASA

A newly announced project called TruSat uses crowdsourced data to track satellites in an effort to hold companies and nations operating in space accountable.

Why it matters: Space junk is a growing concern for those in the space industry, as companies plan to send thousands of satellites to orbit in the coming years.

  • Having reliable means of tracking those satellites and any space junk created from them will be key to creating a sustainable space economy.

What's happening: Today, governments and other organizations are trying to create standards to help limit the amount of space junk produced in orbit.

  • “The efficacy of those standards will be limited without accountability for their adherence, and a major impediment to that accountability is the absence of freely accessible, globally trusted record of satellite orbital positions,” Chris Lewicki, co-founder of ConsenSys Space, which makes TruSat, said via email.

How it works: Instead of relying on information from governments or companies and tracking data from the U.S. Air Force, TruSat will use data collected by people on the ground observing satellites from their own backyards.

  • There is already a vibrant community of people around the world who track satellites with binoculars or cameras from the ground and share that information with one another.
  • Users of TruSat are able to enter tracking information for satellites they observe into the program, where it will be included in a crowdsourced record showing the tracks of satellites in the night sky.
  • The TruSat system is still in an experimental phase, Lewicki said, adding that they hope to add more features in later versions.

Go deeper: The coming cost of moving satellites

3. The hunt for alien life continues

A star (left) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) seen by TESS. Photo: NASA/MIT/TESS

The Breakthrough Listen project announced it will search for signs of intelligent alien life on planets discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Why it matters: This collaboration will allow the project to add more than 1,000 possible worlds to its list of SETI targets.

  • “Out of all the exoplanet endeavors, only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life,” TESS’ Sara Seager said in a statement.

Details: Breakthrough Listen is expected to use telescopes around the globe to scan worlds discovered by TESS for radio signals.

  • TESS finds planets by waiting for them to pass between their host star and the telescope, causing a minuscule dip in the star’s light.
  • Because of its detection method, TESS’ planets are seen edge-on, which could be beneficial when hunting for radio waves because signals that “leak” from Earth into space are mostly seen along the planet’s orbital plane.
  • Researchers working with the project will also look at those light curves for “anomalies” to see if perhaps an intelligent society has built a structure around a star that could affect the way its transit looks.

Yes, but: It’s not going to be easy to pick up radio signals from a world circling a star that’s light-years away from Earth.

  • “I think that the chances of just picking up a leaked signal are probably pretty small because none of these stars are really all that close,” NASA's Steve Howell told Axios.
  • However, it would likely be easier to pick up a radio signal purposefully sent out by an alien civilization.

The backdrop: Scientists have yet to find a true Earth twin out there in the universe, and current technology isn’t equipped to do so.

  • Future telescopes, however, should be able to investigate the atmospheres of alien worlds to possibly detect biosignatures like oxygen that would point to life.

4. Out of this world reading list

The X-37B after landing in Florida on Oct. 27. Photo: USAF

Secret Air Force space plane lands after more than 2 years in orbit (Scott Neuman, NPR)

Virgin Galactic soars in its stock exchange debut (Jackie Wattles, CNN Business)

Star-struck SpaceX fans are in a league of their own (Jeff Foust, Space News)

Ozone layer hole shrinks to smallest size since discovery (Rebecca Falconer, Axios)

NASA mission to map water ice on moon's south pole for the first time (Orion Rummler, Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A ghost in space


There's no shortage of Halloween-themed space photos, but perhaps the best ones represent things that are truly spooky out there in the universe.

  • This photo, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999, shows the ghostly shape of an interstellar cloud being ripped asunder by a star less than 1 light-year away from it.
  • The interstellar cloud — known as Barnard's Merope Nebula — is passing close to the star Merope, which is influencing the nebula.
  • "The nebula will continue its approach towards Merope over the next few thousand years and will eventually move past the star, if it survives," the European Space Agency said in an image description.

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