The satellite launched on Friday has one of the highest resolution commercial hyperspectral cameras ever used. Pixxel co-founders Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal said in a blog post that the company is planning a collection of six hyperspectral satellites that “could cover any point on the globe every 48 hours.”
If you’re wondering how this technology differs from satellites already circulating in space, here’s a little digression into what we can and can’t see with our current suite of Earth observation technologies.
The Pixelxel satellites will have a resolution of 10 meters per pixel. GIF: Pixel
There are generally two main types of imaging equipment on satellites. One provides traditional images that rely solely on the visible light spectrum. They are essentially high-end cameras circling the Earth. The second type of technology, however, provides multispectral images that capture a handful of bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. A multispectral image, for example, might include infrared radiation or ultraviolet light but represented in fairly simplistic terms.
This minimizes their ability to show a range of environmental concerns. Take the image below, which shows a mountain range and farmland in Sinaloa, Mexico. In traditional and multispectral imagery, earth is largely depicted with a single color, despite the variation in mineral content.
But in hyperspectral images, Pixxel’s daily bread, data is collected on 40 times more wavelengths, allowing it to detect what is essentially invisible. The company says methane emissions and agricultural disease outbreaks are just some of the things that could be uncovered with its technology.
Hyperspectral imaging offers a vast improvement over other forms of Earth observation.Image: Pixell
Existing hyperspectral satellites launched by organizations such as NASA have resolutions of 30 meters per pixel, while Pixxel promises 10 meters per pixel. Higher resolution data will allow for a more granular look at the planet. The company will receive its first data from the satellite launched on Friday in a few weeks. It plans to launch its first commercial-stage satellites in early 2023 and will begin selling its data commercially at that time.
While these images are intriguing only from a voyeuristic point of view, am I the only one who is thrilled to have images of Sinaloa’s soil and water health? – and stunning as works of art, they also offer an opportunity for climate and environmental responsibility.
Take methane, for example. Tracking methane leaks on the ground is a laborious and expensive process, while satellite estimates are not always accurate enough to identify emissions. Although it may sound like science fiction, reliable detection from a low orbiting satellite could simplify this process. Of course, this requires those of us here in the field to ensure that data is actually used to solve problems in the first place.