January 7, 2014
Imagine an energy company which manages a pipeline through Canada’s taiga. The company’s charged with maintaining that pipeline, with making sure it isn’t leaking and hasn’t been compromised. So, every day, the company pays a local to get in a plane and fly over the otherwise inert, massive metal tube, looking for objects, organic or otherwise, that shouldn’t be there.
Or that’s what they’ve done for many years. Five years from now, that pilot might be out of a job. Tiny satellites, whizzing over head in low Earth orbit, could photograph every meter of the pipeline. It won’t seem like anyone’s nearby, but, should a truck or stain appear on the ice, a system administrator in Houston would get a text message warning of a problem.
Humans began photographing their home planet from space in a scientifically useful way about a half-century ago. Now the images are ubiquitous: On a web search, in a phone app, on the news, we see the browns and blues that denote pictures taken from the sky. They have rollicked around the culture, spawning both the techno-hippie Whole Earth Catalog and the $3 billion military contractor Digital Globe.