Planet Explorers constellation of tiny satellites shows how Earths surface changes over time

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Not long ago, an Indian rocket company launched a record 104 compact microsatellites into low-earth orbit. Eighty-eight of them had the same directive: map the whole globe, every day, for a company called Planet. To do that, Planet needs quite a constellation of satellites. But now 149 of them are in operational LEO, and they’ve already started mapping and stitching together image tiles of vast swaths of Earth.

Using Planet Explorer Beta, you can scroll through and see how areas of land have changed over the last twelve months, in monthly snapshots. The company has built an automated system that processes the visible-spectrum data collected by its satellites, selects the best frames, and stitches them together into a mosaic.

The entire globe is available for viewing at a resolution of 30 to 40 meters on a side. The United States gets special attention: it’s being imaged at three- to five-meter resolution. That means you can pick out buildings, roads, and even tiny features like trees or individual cars.

“This basemap is a game changer,” says National Geographic cartographer Rosemary Wardley of the service. She said having up-to-date imagery at such a high resolution is a “tremendous asset, not only to the field of cartography but for science as a whole.”

The daily image updates will be reserved for Planet’s paid clients, which include agricultural and mapping companies and government agencies. If you’re willing to sign up for an Explorer account, you’ll be able to see the daily snapshots they make available for the state of California. The coverage in CA isn’t yet complete, but it’s frequent enough to catch recent developments like the flooding of crop fields near Gilroy and the swelling of a reservoir behind the Oroville Dam that recently caused so much havoc.

Planet is the brainchild of former NASA luminary Will Marshall, who founded Planet Labs with a group of other ex-NASA scientists. Here’s his description of the program’s goals, from a recent blog post announcing the beta service:

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