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This article was written on 19 Nov 2013, and is filled under Uncategorized.

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The Promise of SkyBox

No podcast this week; we had some icestorm activity last week and it really messed up everyones’ schedules. So here is an article on space and the future and awesomeness instead. Hope you enjoy.

SkyBox may not be the name we finally call it, but it strikes me as cool that (one of) the next frontier(s) of networking is defined by the constraints of distance, radical climate and the technological limits of our ability to travel to and occupy physical space. Is it just me? Isn’t space again the distinctive goal, though now less defined by its human-reach idealism (against the backdrop of weapons proliferation during the cold war) and more defined by the traditional challenges humans have faced, throughout time, when colonizing a new environment? Space is expensive. Space is dangerous. How do I make money from space? Why should we even go to space? So many of us still grow up dreaming ourselves astronauts, and yet so few of us ever go. Those who return are heroes. Those who don’t are never forgotten.

It is an open debate right now whether we will ever go to space again in a big way. Sure, there are plans for reaching Mars. There are even hundreds of thousands of applicants for cheap, one-way flights off this rock towards certain death on the red planet. We’ll wait and see if any of those plans ever come to fruition; I have my suspicions that there are more than a few boyhood dreamers who’ve found themselves in the money, and occasionally on a pulpit in front of fabulist press, lately. But today NASA launched MAVEN with no human aboard and with not enough budgetary ceiling left to’ve even considered sending up a houseplant, should they have had a reason to. Space may be dead until we find gold there (or perhaps some other desirable mineral).

In the meantime, gazing out over the Atlantic and imagining the rich unmapped shores which should almost seem visible to them, SkyBox wants to flood our orbit with cameras that take pictures of Earth. They plan to launch their first, contained within the shell of a warhead atop a Russian ICBM (cheaper than Musk’s Dragon rocket, though more liable to funhouse bureaucratic mess; it seems, this side of space privatization in the US, that their national caracatures still retain some of their traditional applicability) in just a few days, on November 21st. With more imaging satellites in space, deployed at much less cost than the satellites which already circle our Earth, images of the planet will become exponentially cheaper, encouraging businesses to find new uses of said images, driving further deployment of cheap imaging satellites, etc. That is the gameplan in simulation, anyway. Will SkyBox succeed? I don’t think it matters whether SkyBox succeeds, because it is increasingly clear that someone will.

The numbers are so incredible that they make SkyBox’s argument for them. Out of 1000 or so satellites in space, about 100 take images of Earth. And of those 100, only 12 are HD imaging satellites, distinguished from their (SD?) cousins by the 1 pixel = 1 square meter standard. Of those 12, only 9 are available for commercial use. And, of those 9, the US government has veto and first-right priveleges (at any notice) over 8 of them. Personally, I had no clue that the poverty of good glass in space was so extreme, although I couldn’t have given anything other than an absolute guess as to how much was up there. Space continues, even in our immediate neighborhood, to be largely empty of human influence. And I think that may be due to one unresolved issue directly in the crosshairs of SkyBox’s very argument to exist: Do we really need more, cheaper images of Earth?

SkyBox’s argument is boring, btw: Images collating the light emitted by developing countries, and thereby wattage as a measurement of economic growth; Images of river deltas to calculate rates of geographic and biological change; Images of parking lots at different times of day to calculate need for parking space. Bleh. Unimaginative. Deadly bland. Of course, admittedly, these are also uses which promise to be in high and expensive demand just as soon as organizations with money learn how best to use them. Data-gathering from geo-imaging satellites is already a two billion dollar industry. Look for the number to skyrocket, pun intended.

But that’s not why I find SkyBox interesting. In fact, I don’t find SkyBox interesting at all. The promise of SkyBox isn’t in their unique vision, nor is it in their admittedly crafty execution. SkyBox is interesting for its inevitability.

Throughout human development, there’ve been points where a particular communications medium has saturated enough of the market to utterly change how we perceive and converse with each other. The printing press allowed such saturation of books, the industrial revolution allowed such saturation of equipment, personal computers allowed such saturation of the Internet, and everyone these days is talking about the impending saturation of 3d printers and fabrication tech. I am curious how the saturation of geo-imagery, at increasingly low cost, may change how we see and communicate with ourselves. What new ways of communicating may evolve from being able to order up to two pictures taken of your house per day, for instance? What happens when there is no longer just 1 HD imaging satellite that isn’t controlled by the US government, but a whole swarm of them available to anyone? And what new issues will develop as a result of this tech, demanding new conversations in an effort to resolve them? I am excited for what I may see from space, for what strange new things may be curated or created or found simply because, suddenly, the language of Earth’s visage will be available to anyone to learn, listen to, and speak with. I find that sort of thing exciting, and also, at some point, if human history is any indication, inevitable. When we find ourselves on the verge of and with the need to develop a new network in a new environment, humans have always done so with great pace and innovative effort.

Featured image from NASA

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