Recently, officials in California announced that the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, had been fully contained. The achievement was made possible through the hard work of firefighters on the ground, with some help from above: a swarm of tiny, orbiting satellites that represent the next phase of the space age.
The satellites are operated by Planet Labs, a company in San Francisco that runs the world’s largest fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Its craft number around 140. All of them carry cameras and telescopes. In size, most rival a loaf of bread.
As a group, the satellites can view the same spot on the ground once or even twice a day. Until now, commercial satellites could observe a location only weekly or monthly, if at all. The quicker pace enables the close monitoring of rapid environmental change, including fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes and the effects of such events on urban areas.
“You can’t fix what you can’t see,” said Will Marshall, the company’s chief executive.
The Camp Fire started Thursday, Nov. 8. The next day, a Planet Labs team in Sacramento began streaming surveillance data to the war room where state officials coordinated the response.
The governor’s office of emergency services used the satellite imagery to help map the fast-moving flames and determine whether individual buildings were intact, damaged or destroyed. Mark Ghilarducci, director of the office, described the images as “a gold mine” for managers and emergency teams.
“It’s situational awareness,” said Brittany Zajic, head of disaster response for Planet Labs. “The damage assessments were done neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Thinking small, dreaming big
The Planet Labs fleet is part of a larger trend toward miniaturisation. Satellites are shrinking in size and expanding in ambition. Made smaller, the craft are less expensive and more accessible to a wider group of interests, and they enable, among other advances, the ability to observe Earth’s environment more completely and regularly than ever before.
“It’s unbelievably significant,” S. Pete Worden, a retired Air Force general and NASA official who now chairs the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, said of the trend. “At first they were toys. Now it’s revolutionary.”
For years, space was dominated by just two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. Their designs were big: Rockets grew taller than 20-story apartment buildings. Satellites expanded to the size of city buses. Spy satellites unfurled antennas nearly as large as football fields.
The debut of the iPhone in 2007 signaled to a new generation of satellite-makers that their creations, too, could shrink. Early models were called PhoneSats because their electronic cores were made of smartphones. The satellites cost just $7,000 apiece.
Today, relatively small rockets send aloft satellites the size of handbags, knapsacks and pizza boxes. The spacecraft teem with tiny sensors, circuits, lenses, motors, batteries and antennas. Last year, a single launch in India cast into orbit 104 satellites, shattering the previous world record for deployment.
The spacecraft came from India, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, as well as from two American companies, including Planet Labs. Ghana, a West African nation, entered the space age last year with a satellite the size of a can of beans. Outer space is being democratised.
Typically, the new spacecraft cost so little to build and send aloft that universities and even high schools are getting into the act. On Saturday, Nov. 10, students from six high schools in Irvine, Calif., cheered as their tiny craft was carried into orbit. Its mission is to study Venus.
“It’s been really great,” said Brent Freeze, an aerospace specialist who advises the 160 students. “It’s a way to get smart young people to talk to each other and work together.”
Even NASA, a founding member of the big-is-better club, has joined the new wave. In May, it fired a pair of briefcase-size craft, known together as Mars Cube One, toward Mars — the first miniaturised probes to fly beyond Earth orbit. In October, after a voyage of nearly a half year, one of the twins snapped the first picture.
“Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win,” said Cody Colley, a mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Mini, many, mighty
To be sure, huge satellites still regularly fly into orbit, especially ones devoted to espionage and national security. These gargantuan craft are made by some of the world’s largest corporations, and the costs can run to billions of dollars — creating an incentive to keep making them big, aerospace critics say.
But small is more affordable. After going through an experimental phase of development, mini-satellites began to soar in number, said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks global launches and publishes Jonathan’s Space Report. The total number of space craft weighing 22 pounds or less grew from 12 in 2011, to 89 in 2013, to 125 in 2015, to 291 last year. Dr. McDowell expects the number to keep rising as more groups and companies join the trend.
“There was a feeling for a long time that space was a mature field,” he said. “That’s gone away now.”
Many of the new craft do traditional jobs on the cheap, such as assessing crops, mapping cities, relaying signals and managing natural resources. Wall Street analysts use the new flows of information to better assess futures markets. Companies such as Planet Labs want to make Earth observation less about spying than about helping scientists and the public better track environmental change, in an effort to improve management and remediation.
On Monday Dec. 3, a SpaceX rocket in California sent aloft 64 satellites made by Planet Labs, and a total of 17 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Finland, Italy, Jordan, Poland, South Korea and Thailand. The rocket also carried IRVINE02, the second mini-satellite built by students of the Irvine school district.
Another, a backpack-size craft made in the United States, is to open up and bounce radar signals off Earth’s surface — a major feat of miniaturization. Traditional space-based radars can see at night and through clouds but require big antennas. Instead, Capella Space, based in San Francisco, hired an origami expert to figure out how to fold a nearly 100-square-foot antenna into a tight bundle.
“It’s the first of its kind,” said Payam Banazadeh, the company’s chief executive. “Out of a tiny box comes a humongous structure.”
Bigger goals lie ahead. The nation of Ghana is looking to build a tiny spacecraft with cameras powerful enough to track illegal mining and deforestation. Elon Musk, known for his Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets, wants to build a network of 12,000 tiny satellites that would beam internet access to billions of people in rural and suburban areas around the globe.
Last February, when SpaceX launched two test satellites, Mr. Musk tweeted in clipped prose that the orbital network, called Starlink, “will serve least served.” The company plans to start launching the satellites next year and have a rudimentary network in place by 2020, although the income potential for space-based internet is unclear.
Not every space mission can use tiny satellites. Miniaturisation may not work for orbiting telescopes used in astronomy, nor for high-powered satellites that beam television signals to rooftop antennas and home viewers.
But the appeal of miniaturisation is likely to grow: a large mission becomes less vulnerable to total failure if it can be subdivided into many tiny parts. “You add robustness,” said Dr. McDowell, the Harvard astronomer. “That’s been talked about for a long time, but now it’s happening.”
With the California fires now under control, Planet Labs is looking for new situations that could benefit from eyes on high.
“We’re space geeks,” Mr. Marshall, the company’s head, conceded. But the goal, he added, was not just to reinvent the age but to learn “how to use this technology for good.”
Dr. Freeze, the adviser to the satellite-building high-school students in California, said he liked to think of the endeavour as reviving the lure of the unknowns:
“Our team,” he said, “has been working around the clock.
William J. Broad is a science journalist and senior writer at the New York Times.