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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Gathering photos of Earth from space used to be the purview of governments alone, but today, private companies are increasingly performing those operations from orbit.

Why it matters: The change has created a new commercial market and enhanced how governments are able to monitor activities on Earth from space. It's also raising questions about privacy on Earth.

The big picture: Some satellite constellations are now able to take high-resolution photos of vast swaths of Earth every day, giving governments and private companies unprecedented and quick views of changes on Earth's surface.

  • "It's a real shift in how surveillance and monitoring is being done," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.

What's happening: The National Reconnaissance Office recently awarded BlackSky Global, Maxar and Planet — three companies with satellites in space looking down at Earth today — "study contracts."

  • These contracts could allow the NRO to figure out new ways of using commercial data from orbit.
  • DARPA's Blackjack satellites — expected to launch in 2021 — are small and relatively inexpensive, seemingly taking a page out of the commercial playbook.

The good: Private, Earth-observing satellites can also be used for disaster management, deforestation monitoring, shipping and other applications.

  • Planet, for example, is able to monitor changes on the ground that take place over a day, information that can be used to monitor crop growth and track other commodities.
  • Other companies like HawkEye 360 track radio frequency signals from space for customers on the ground to identify illegal fishing, track ships and other operations.

The bad: More surveillance means more privacy concerns for individuals on the ground.

  • "There are laws that prevent U.S. intelligence communities from collecting imagery or signals from U.S. property, but there are no laws that prevent commercial companies from doing that," Douglas Loverro, a former Department of Defense official, told Axios.

What to watch: The market for data collected by Earth-observing spacecraft beyond governments is unclear.

  • Some expect it to grow: Last year, Northern Sky Research predicted that, by 2027, demand for Earth-observing data will rise to $6.9 billion.
  • "The more data we collect and analyze and the more we learn will trigger new ideas and technologies to collect entirely new data sets," Ben Lamm, founder of Hypergiant Industries, told Axios via email. "Space is, for argument's sake, endless; so the data we can collect will also be endless."

Go deeper: The coming cost of moving satellites

Go deeper

Updated 12 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Bill Clinton hospitalized for non-COVID-related infection

Former President Bill Clinton. Photo: Win McNamee/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton was admitted to the University of California, Irvine Medical Center on Tuesday for a non-COVID-related infection, his spokesperson Angel Ureña said Thursday.

The latest: In an update on Friday, Ureña said Clinton's health indicators are "trending in the right direction, including his white blood count which has decreased significantly."

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
5 hours ago - Health

FDA panel endorses shot of J&J booster for adults

Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Members of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine expert panel on Friday unanimously endorsed a booster shot for adult recipients of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine at least two months after the initial dose.

Why it matters: The advisory committee raised concerns about a dearth of data to support their decision but ultimately decided to support an additional shot for those over 18.

Capitol Police officer indicted for obstructing Jan. 6 investigation

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

A U.S. Capitol Police officer has been indicted on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping hide evidence of a participant's involvement in the Jan. 6 riot.

Driving the news: Officer Michael A. Riley, 50, is accused of telling the unidentified participant, referred to as "Person 1," in the Jan. 6 riot to delete posts from Facebook, which showed them in the Capitol during the attack.