Satellite launches for Google hi-res imaging; can we track humans by shadows?

Google is really watching now. John Battelle blogs:
Not content to lease data from others who have satellites, Google today launched its own satellite into space. (Via BeetTv, thanks Andy.) Talk about web meets world....this is yet another indicator of the integration of virtual and physical. And it brings Google one step closer to what I think could be the company's Waterloo - a viral meme that Google is sensing too much, knows too much, and is too powerful. It may not be rational, but no one ever accused humans of being entirely rational.
And via the linked AP article:
A Delta 2 rocket carrying the GeoEye-1 satellite lifted off at 11:50 a.m. Saturday. Video on the GeoEye Web site showed the satellite separating from the rocket moments later on its way to an eventual polar orbit. The satellite makers say GeoEye-1 has the highest resolution of any commercial imaging system. It can collect images from orbit with enough detail to show home plate on a baseball diamond.
And snip from a related article by Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides on Wired News:
In a speech last month to a security conference in the UK, Stoica explained that by using shadows you can read the length and rhythm of someone's gait and do an identification, even from above. He has written software that isolates the shadow from video, and adjusts for time of day and camera angle to deal with elongated and foreshortened shadows. Stoica shot video from the top of a six story building to test out his software and was able to get usable gait data on his subjects.

Now going from six stories to satellites in low Earth orbit is probably a stretch. The best commercial low Earth orbit satellite (GeoEye- launching this Sunday to power better Google Maps) will have 41 cm resolution. The best known military spy sat can see at least down to 10 cm (though who knows what classified hardware can do). GeoEye is also only taking stills as it flies over, not the kinds of video footage that Stoica was using. To do that, you might need to go up to geostationary orbit which is much farther out and according to one expert, just wouldn't have the resolution. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying overhead, on the other hand, might work just fine for this.

Either way, you may want to practice skipping from place to place when it is sunny out.

Spy Software Could ID You By Your Shadow (Wired Science)

Clarification, 725pm PT: One anonymous BB commenter was among several who took issue with the implication that Google actually owned the satellite, the launch vehicle, or exclusive usage rights to all resulting data. That's not accurate. In the discussion thread for this BB post, "anonymous #27" said:

Google is the "exclusive online mapping site" customer for GeoEye-1 data; it is not the exclusive customer for the imagery. Many other customers, including and especially the NGA, will be using GeoEye-1 data. Also, the Google logo was on the launch vehicle, not the spacecraft, and Google did not pay for the placement.
This Reuters item released a few hours ago covers those ownership/exclusivity matters, and is a helpful read. Here's a press release from GeoEye about the launch, also released this afternoon.

And in related news, Google is evidently planning offshore data barges, to avoid property taxes and keep hard-workin' servers cool with the power of the ocean. (via Tim O'Reilly/Twitter)


  1. This is not a Google satellite. GeoEye is its own company, and the satellite is part of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s NextView program. Of course Google still could buy or lease the images, but that’s not the same as saying they own the thing.

  2. @#3, correct, but as I understand it, the satellite will provide mapping data *exclusively* to Google.

  3. also #3 – the word “Google” is on the side of the satellite in question.

    But so what?

    Google bought a whole generation of operational imaging satellites from the US Gov’t a couple months back. It’s 1970’s technology to the NSA, but still impressive.

  4. Apologies to Mr. Neil Young (a beautiful canuck) for stealing his lyric above, from the song “Bad News Beat”, found on the album “Landing On Water” (1986).

  5. I was told by a CIA employee that under good conditions they could tell if your watch had a TIMEX in the middle. And this was back in the early 80s.

  6. “I was told by a CIA employee that under good conditions they could tell if your watch had a TIMEX in the middle. And this was back in the early 80s.”

    Casino cameras can pick the serial numbers off dollar bills. Good cameras aren’t just the domain of the government anymore.

  7. Re: 21 & 23. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you that you can see the dimples in a golf ball (and that was back in the 80’s.) Then again, I heard that certain US agencies were shocked by some Nikon lens because the anti-refractive coating was better than the stuff they had.

    That being said, it would be a challenge to find a person or track one with a satellite, because they either move over an area quickly (like 15 minutes from horizon to horizon) or it’s 23,000 miles up and looking at nearly a third of the earth’s surface.

  8. Gilbert anonymous here again–I STILL can’t login–GRRRR–

    Because of medical problems i can’t regulate my body temperature so I use an umbrella whenever I go out in the sun. Hey–Isn’t this satellite useless on rainy days, cloudy days, and at night?

  9. Google is the “exclusive online mapping site” customer for GeoEye-1 data; it is not the exclusive customer for the imagery. Many other customers, including and especially the NGA, will be using GeoEye-1 data.

    Also, the Google logo was on the launch vehicle, not the spacecraft, and Google did not pay for the placement.

  10. Thank you for correcting the post – #27 is absolutely correct. #4/Xeni, there is nothing exclusive about the imagery sales, either. It’s just good publicity for GeoEye and Google to have the name on there.

  11. “It can collect images from orbit with enough detail to show home plate on a baseball diamond.”

    I’m with #1 post. Here I sit at my desk in China looking at home plate in the San Francisco ball park. One can determine exactly how many seats are filled, and where the players are in the field.

  12. So, I was reading through GeoEye’s website but can’t find the information: which geographical areas can this satellite cover (North America, Europe, the whole world, etc. etc.)?

  13. I hope someone writes an application that will predict when the satellite is over your location. Maybe Google will do it. I look forward to the opportunity to place a message on my roof. Graffiti on a grand scale…

  14. The fact that the competing satellite that M$ and Yahoo use, with similar resolution, has been operational for a year, makes this article silly.

  15. The satellite is in a sun-synchronized, polar orbit (that’s why it took off from Vandenberg, CA instead of Cape Canaveral, FL). A polar orbit means that it’s orbiting the earth on a steeply inclined angle almost going over the poles, rather than along the equator like geosynchronized ones like communications do, or somewhat inclined like the shuttle or ISS do. Sun-synchronized means that time on the ground beneath the satellite is the same on every orbit. It’s common for these birds to pick 10:30am as a good time because the sun is high enough to give good light, and it’s early enough in the day that you don’t have afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. A quick look at the shadows on Google Earth shows that some images are AM (Washington, DC) but most high-rez stuff is around 4pm (NYC, Chicago). It’s possible to shift the time of a bird, but usually they stay put.

  16. With regard to the floating data center, does anyone else think any of their savings on power etc could be wiped out by having to buy floating security? If you just leave these expensive ass servers in open water, or even just offshore, I could see asian pirates or others thinking that they’re a pretty juicy target – you would have to hire security above the average rent-a-cop… Or maybe the savings are still worth it?

  17. Heard about this on Talk of the Nation Science Friday a week or so ago. Not only has a poster already correctly pointed out that Google has no exclusive rights to the images, but for a fee, anyone can order a high-res satellite image of anywhere on the planet. They will also offer archived free imagery for various students and researchers with agreeable scientific studies.

    Since the satellite is in a polar orbit (a single orbit takes 98 minutes), it can photograph any given location on the planet, but depending on weather and day/night conditions, any given spot can only be photographed roughly every three days.

    However, due to US government restrictions, they have to resample the images at a slightly lower resolution. The official value, I believe, is half a meter.

  18. wouldn’t that sky event watching software with laptop and camera generate all the info needed to know when spy satellites were overhead? Wasn’t that posted here re: meteors etc.?

  19. It’d be interesting to do a cost study with waterproof containers simply placed on the seabed. A tethered barge could provide a satellite uplink, and by reducing/eliminating any insulation on the containers, you may eliminate the need for any active cooling system (ie, no pumps, fans, tubing, etc…). Of course, that would have to be balanced against the cost of waterproofing and strengthening the containers to withstand the pressures at the desired depth. You’d also have to take into account what sort of impact you’d have on the sealife on the bottom there, but you can find areas that are relatively devoid of sea life. It’d keep all but the most determined pirates away, too. For recovery, you could have lines with floats attached to the four corners of the container. When it needs to be pulled out, you simply send a message to release the floats, hook up your crane, and you’re good to go.

    Or maybe I’m just crazy.

  20. depth charges?

    someone recently posted a link mentioning that rich people’s floating city ship “Freedom”, an article by China somebody… very relevant read when considering this tax avoiding move by Google.

  21. “Either way, you may want to practice skipping from place to place when it is sunny out.”

    I think the Ministry of Silly Walks could be useful there.

  22. Is all of Google’s current imagery satellite or does some of it include aerial tiles?

    BTW, the 10cm resolution limit on known hardware is based on a lens/mirror size of around 2.5m. To get down to the resolution to read a watch or a newspaper would require a lens over 200 meters wide. That’s pretty much a function of optics and the wavelength of light, as we currently understand them, and doesn’t take into consideration atmospheric turbulence.

  23. Scuba, I enjoyed your idea about sunken containers on the seabed.

    However, your worries about affecting the local sealife are probably unfounded, so long as you choose a good area to locate at. The sprawling network of underwater containers could become a nature-reclaimed wilderness à la Angkor Wat, but populated by thermophiles.

    Beautiful :)

  24. I would like to think that AI can emerge from the Google-verse. I’m not saying it’s going to be a human-mind analog, but then it doesn’t need to be. I think we should probably stay on good terms with it, because like God, it can remember everything you ever asked it for. Besides, there’s always somebody on top. Might as well be a non-organic mind that arises from our need for information (and lots and lots of porn). Could be worse.

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