Start-up plans 'fleet' of satellites taking photos of Earth for massive, open database

Launched by former NASA scientists, Planet Labs lands $13 million in venture funding

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Image credit: Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video

See that iconic photo of Earth above? It was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Not only did this image -- known as NASA's Blue Marble -- adorn millions of bedroom walls in the '70s and beyond, it helped fuel the nascent global environmental movement by capturing the fragile and finite beauty of our planet.

Now a team of former NASA scientists hopes its start-up -- which "will operate the world’s largest fleet of Earth imaging satellites" -- can be the next great catalyst for positive change.

"We want to help people understand the planet and make better decisions," the Planet Labs founders say on the start-up's website. "By giving people a view of the Earth in near real-time, we intend to spur people, companies, and governments to action. Planet Labs will be providing an entirely new data set -- unprecedented coverage and frequent imagery of the planet. This new information will inform future humanitarian, ecological and commercial endeavors. ...What the Blue Marble did for global awareness, Planet Labs will do for global action."

To help fund its grand plans, Planet Labs just secured $13 million in venture capital from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, First Round Capital, Founders Fund and O'Reilly AlphaTech.

The founders are Chris Boshuizen, Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler, all veterans of the U.S. space agency.

Two months ago Planet Labs, which is based in San Francisco, launched two of its "Dove" demonstration satellites to test out. Things went well, so Planet Labs says early next year it "will launch the world’s largest constellation of Earth observing satellites."

These tiny satellites will transmit a near-constant stream of images that will enable the creation of massive data sets, Planet Labs says.

"We are a purpose-driven company and we care deeply about positive impact through the use of information and space technologies," the website says. Those positive impacts include helping people to "detect deforestation, better understand agriculture yields, and give first responders relevant information immediately after a natural disaster."

Well, that sounds good, and so does the Planet Labs plan to make its data openly available so users and developers "will be able to innovate and create new tools and novel applications we could never have imagined."

But a small army of satellites circling the globe and photographing everything is sure to raise privacy concerns. Here's what Planet Labs says about that:

Our platform does not jeopardize personal privacy. Users are able to see the canopy of a tree but cannot identify individual cars or persons.

We'll soon see, I guess.

Now read this:

10 things that happen to our bodies during space flight

Spidernaut never got to enjoy its fame

Polar ice sheets continue to melt, but climate-change deniers remain thick as ever

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