SPACE 2: Wait, Why Are We Going To Space? : Planet Money We hitched a ride on a satellite. Now we have to figure out what we're going to do up there.
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SPACE 2: Wait, Why Are We Going To Space?

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SPACE 2: Wait, Why Are We Going To Space?

SPACE 2: Wait, Why Are We Going To Space?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the very early days of satellites, you pretty much knew what the mission of any given satellite was going to be.


Spying on the enemy.

ROBERT CARDILLO: And at the time, the object of interest was pretty singular - the Soviet Union.

R. SMITH: Robert Cardillo's job was to study the photos that came down from those U.S. spy satellites. Every day, he would go to a windowless government building in Washington, D.C., into a dimly lit room. And he would sit down at something called a light table with a single photograph on it.

CARDILLO: And then imagine a microscope, right? I'm now peering through a microscope. I'm looking at garrisons that have military equipment. And I'm looking at test sites in which they might be employing a new missile technology. I'm looking at ports to see what the development of their naval capabilities are.

S. SMITH: Lots of people would look at the same photograph for hours. They called it torturing the pixels.

R. SMITH: And they had to torture the pixels because each and every spy photo of the Soviet Union was incredibly rare and valuable.

S. SMITH: In the early days, satellites would take pictures on rolls of film. This was before digital photography, where you could just beam the picture back to Earth from space. So there were actually giant rolls of film inside of the satellites. And so they had to figure out a way to get that film back to Earth from space.

R. SMITH: And they came up with this brilliant solution. The program had the secret code name Corona. And the Corona satellites were designed to take pictures and then sort of poop out the canister of film from the bottom of the satellite and inject it into space.

CARDILLO: Once it reached the atmosphere, it would deploy a parachute. I kid you not. Now it's floating down over the Pacific Ocean.

R. SMITH: Your spy satellite photos.

CARDILLO: A U.S. Air Force plane with basically a trapeze on the end of it - so think of it - two poles and a big net - would have to time it so that as it floated down, it flew right over top of it, caught the parachute in its net, thus caught the canister.

R. SMITH: It's inconceivable to me there is a falling canister of film from space. And an airplane catches it in a net.

CARDILLO: In midair.

R. SMITH: Yeah.

CARDILLO: That's American ingenuity.

S. SMITH: In the decades since then, the U.S. has, of course, launched thousands of better satellites able to beam down millions of photos rather than just what it could fit on a roll of film.

R. SMITH: And Robert Cardillo now runs the entire agency in charge of all that new information, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And he laughs looking back at his time in that windowless building in that dim room because his problem now is too much data - so many photographs to go through.

S. SMITH: So many pixels to torture.

R. SMITH: How many people like you - like your old job - how many people would you need to go through the kind of data we're getting now?

CARDILLO: So we would have to hire 8 million imagery analysts to accommodate such data.

R. SMITH: Of course, they're not going to hire 8 million people. In fact, right now the U.S. government is training computers to do those jobs in the future.

S. SMITH: But it highlights this issue that the entire satellite business is thinking about right now, which is, how do we handle this flood of pictures and data coming in from space? And does the world even need any more satellites?

R. SMITH: Maybe we should've thought of this before PLANET MONEY decided to go to space.

S. SMITH: It is Monday morning satellite launching.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five, four, three, two, one. We have ignition.

R. SMITH: Whoa. Whoa. It's so bright.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

S. SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith - no relation.

R. SMITH: Move over, International Space Station. Honey, give us some room, Hubble telescope because PLANET MONEY has a brand new satellite. And we're going to put it in orbit.

S. SMITH: This is Part 2 of our series. If you want to hear how podcasters like us even got our hands on a spacecraft...

R. SMITH: Amazing.

S. SMITH: ...You should go back and listen to the first episode.

R. SMITH: We talked there about how there is a revolution right now in the space industry. Satellites are getting small and cheap and plentiful. And it raises a big question for everyone - what are they all going to do up in space?

S. SMITH: Today on the show, what should the PLANET MONEY satellite do?

R. SMITH: The mission to find the mission.

S. SMITH: (Laughter).

R. SMITH: We have named the PLANET MONEY satellite Pod 1. It's about 12 inches long, a foot. It's basically a little telescope with a camera.

S. SMITH: And when it is up 300 miles above the Earth, it will be able to do essentially what those Corona satellites did - take pictures of whatever PLANET MONEY wants to spy on.

R. SMITH: When we last left Pod 1, it was sitting on a workbench at the satellite company we're working with, Planet.

S. SMITH: No relation.

R. SMITH: No relation. And in this briefcase, Stacey...


R. SMITH: ...I have a model of it...


R. SMITH: ...Right here.

S. SMITH: Oh, it's so cute.

R. SMITH: Little Poddy (ph).

S. SMITH: (Laughter).

R. SMITH: It's about the size of a loaf of bread.

S. SMITH: With, like, solar cell wings.

R. SMITH: Yeah, no. It's got a little camera lens on it. So that feeling - that feeling you have right now, Stacey - that excitement about sending something you have touched into orbit. It has a name. And it's a name I heard over and over again when I talked to experts. We have officially diagnosed space fever.

SILVANO PAYNE: You're not the only ones. That is the big problem.

R. SMITH: Stacey, meet Silvano Payne. He is publisher of SatNews. He's been covering this industry for a long time. And he says what we have forgotten here at PLANET MONEY is that a satellite is just a tool. It is just a simple tool to collect and transmit some sort of data.

PAYNE: A lot of people get caught up in the technology and forget that somehow that technology has to be paid for. And so there has to be a business case.

R. SMITH: There has to be a client who needs some data.

PAYNE: Yeah, data.

R. SMITH: Yeah.

PAYNE: Yeah. There's to be a client.

R. SMITH: But you know what no one wants to work in? No one wants to work at a data company. They want to work for a space company.

PAYNE: Correct. Correct.

R. SMITH: Silvano says right now all sorts of companies are racing to be in the space business, to get the tiny satellites into orbit. And yet they do not have a strong plan for how they're going to make money off of it.

S. SMITH: Like us?

R. SMITH: Yeah, I know.

PAYNE: The challenge is there are too many plans going on. There's too much being built. There's a lot of venture funds around that are being poured into a lot of these companies. And they are going to be failures. And I'm hoping that I'm wrong, obviously, in this regard. But there is a bubble.

S. SMITH: Do you think...

R. SMITH: I have considered it, yes.

S. SMITH: ...That it is possible...

R. SMITH: Yes.

S. SMITH: ...That when a podcast sends a satellite into space, that is when you know there's a bubble?

R. SMITH: That has occurred to me. But this existential crisis - this is exactly what the entire industry is facing right now. Everyone's asking the same question we are, which is, does the world really need another satellite? What can we do with a satellite that will change the world?

S. SMITH: I mean, it is such a production to get to space. We have to do something to make it worthwhile. We have to send little Poddy off...

R. SMITH: Pod 1, yeah.

S. SMITH: ...On some kind of worthy mission.

R. SMITH: Yeah. So first, we have to figure out what our satellite is able to do - to take it for a test drive, essentially. So I arranged to sit down with Katherine Scott. She runs the image analytics team at Planet, the people who let us adopt one of their satellites. They have about 200 satellites just like ours already in space, already taking pictures every day. And so I just wanted to see, like, just today - just today - what did those satellites get?

KATHERINE SCOTT: Today, it's almost 2 to 4 terabytes a day comes down. It's something on that order of magnitude. And so it's...

R. SMITH: How many photos would it be? How many photos got taken of the Earth today?

SCOTT: Oh, geez. Well, they're about 25 megs each. So it's about - yeah, it's about 800,000 images every day.

R. SMITH: Eight hundred thousand photos a day. So no one can look through them. There's not a human being here, watching the photos come down.

SCOTT: No. Everything is automatic.

R. SMITH: Planet has computers that stitch together all of the photos of the Earth every day. So you can essentially do that thing you always see in spy movies, you know, pick a spot on the Earth and then zoom in.

S. SMITH: Oh, enhance. Enhance.

R. SMITH: Exactly. All that power at your fingertips. And me - like, I'm such an idiot. The first thing I say when I sit down at this incredibly massive opportunity is, oh, I would love to see my apartment building in Brooklyn.

SCOTT: Oh, no. Everyone does that the first day.

R. SMITH: Wait. Everyone's like, show me my home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And then Area 51.

SCOTT: Area 51. And then maybe if they're really creative, they're like, I want to see North Korea.

R. SMITH: Ah, nice.

SCOTT: So where are you on the block?

R. SMITH: I am - OK. You see this little lump right there is a synagogue? And we're right there on the other side. Yeah. Yeah. Right on that street.

You can see my apartment building, my kid's school. And I realize I'm using this cutting-edge technology to basically take the world's most expensive selfie.

S. SMITH: (Laughter) I mean, isn't that why pretty much everybody does everything now, though?

R. SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, Katherine says do not underestimate the value of a selfie from space...

S. SMITH: (Laughter).

R. SMITH: ...Because she says the PLANET MONEY satellite is not just a camera.

SCOTT: It's a time machine, right?

R. SMITH: It is a time machine. Because our satellite will be taking photos every day at the same time, you can then go back and see how things change.

SCOTT: And if you can go back in time and figure out a model, you can actually guess what the future's going to hold, too.

R. SMITH: For instance, we're looking at my neighborhood. And Katherine says, look over here at this construction site. It's a few blocks from my apartment. They're building a new part for the hospital. And she says you can go back in time and figure out how quickly the construction crews are moving.

SCOTT: You can actually see that. That construction...

R. SMITH: Yeah. You see, like - you can see they - those used to be buildings there, and they took it out.


R. SMITH: And, you know, I mean, if I did some analytics, you know, I could use this data to figure out when they will finally stop running all of those trucks through my neighborhood every day.

S. SMITH: It's exciting that we finally have the technology to help you fight your neighborhood battles, Robert.

R. SMITH: (Laughter) I have many of them. But I agree. Like, we should think bigger for the PLANET MONEY satellite.

S. SMITH: Than your block? Yes. Let's think a little bigger.

R. SMITH: So for instance, Planet makes money by selling access to this time machine that Katherine's been showing me. And they sort of sell it in bulk - right? - for a dollar or two - literally, like, $1 or $2. You can get pictures of one square kilometer over the course of a year. And they sell subscriptions to this data to farmers, agriculture companies, to the U.S. government. Robert Cardillo, the photo-analyst-turned-director of an agency we talked to earlier - he just made a deal for the U.S. government to pay Planet $14 million for photos of high-priority areas.

S. SMITH: That would be North Korea.

R. SMITH: Shh. But everyone we talked to said, look. The real money is not in taking photos of the Earth. It is in analyzing the photos, in finding the patterns, the patterns that no one else knows about.

S. SMITH: So we need to think like spies.

R. SMITH: Like spies. And I found some that would talk to us. They work in, believe it or not, an old, converted dairy barn in Louisville, Ky. I visited there with producer Elizabeth Kulas.

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: This is high-tech.

R. SMITH: I know.

KULAS: High security, high...



ALPHENAAR: I'm Deirdre.

R. SMITH: Oh, Deirdre, I'm Robert. Hey.

ALPHENAAR: Hi, Robert.

R. SMITH: Good to meet you.

ALPHENAAR: How are you?

R. SMITH: Deirdre Alphenaar is the chief R&D officer at Genscape. The boring way to describe what Genscape does is market intelligence. But, really...

ALPHENAAR: We have been described as the James Bond of commodities and energy markets by The Wall Street Journal, no less.

KULAS: Oh. That's a pretty good pull quote. That's the pull quote you want from The Wall Street Journal, I think.

ALPHENAAR: Yeah. So that was pretty exciting.

R. SMITH: Deirdre explains that in the financial world, everyone wants an edge - a little piece of data that no one else has. And Genscape sells them that data. According to public documents, the company brings in around a hundred million dollars a year.

ALPHENAAR: We have our lab here.

R. SMITH: She takes us into a room that I swear is like that scene from every James Bond film where he gets his gadgets, you know?

S. SMITH: The exploding watch, the deadly pen.

R. SMITH: The deadly pen. And there is even a Q here. His name is Antwon Robinson. He's working on some contraption. So for instance, let's say some oil traders somewhere want to know how much gas is flowing through a pipeline, so they can make a bet on the price of gas. Antwon holds up a box that can eavesdrop on pipelines.

ANTWON ROBINSON: There's a directional microphone. And then there's an omnidirectional microphone that we attach to these.

ALPHENAAR: You can hear the pumps when they're on and when they're running.

R. SMITH: What does it sound like?

ALPHENAAR: (Humming). That's very high-pitched. I need a lower voice. We need Antwon.

R. SMITH: (Humming).

ALPHENAAR: (Humming).

R. SMITH: If the pipeline goes quiet, Genscape will send out an alert to its customers. They have similar gadgets for people who trade electricity. So energy traders want to know if power plants are running at full capacity in the middle of the night. Deirdre pulls out one of their night-vision cameras.

Oh, these are like thermal imaging...


R. SMITH: ...Spy cameras. Oh, so cool.

ALPHENAAR: So they look at heat signatures from power plants, from refineries, from anything that is hot. And we use those signals to indicate whether those refineries are running or not or the power plants are running or not.

S. SMITH: That is awesome. Can we do something like this with Pod 1?

R. SMITH: With our satellites? They do use satellites. So a lot of the things that she showed me - you have to get close to the pipeline or the power plant in order to get the secret info. But satellites have allowed them to monitor everything everywhere. We walk into this huge room, and there's all of these different desks. And everyone is watching different commodities around the globe.

So shout them out. What's over there?


R. SMITH: Oil is over there.


R. SMITH: Power - electricity. Hey.

ALPHENAAR: Shoutout to power folks. Ag - corn...

R. SMITH: Soybeans, maybe.

ALPHENAAR: Soybeans. We have a soybean monitoring product.

R. SMITH: So the people in this room are looking at the pictures from Planet, from satellites exactly like ours. And they're turning them into information that people pay money for. So one researcher we talked to is tallying satellite images of oil wells being drilled in South Sudan. Another one shows me the smokestacks from a power plant in India. He can tell exactly, like, at what capacity it's running at. And then Deirdre asks her team to show me their newest secret spy trick. It's like something out of a movie. Marcus Waldner and Brent Sundheimer open a window on their computer. Click. Click. Click. I see something that looks like a shipping port as seen from space.

So what are we looking at here? Is this an actual place?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yes. This is a port in China, Dalian.

R. SMITH: Click. Click. We zoom in, and I see what looks like a bunch of white marshmallows - oil tanks.

And you can see in this photo how much oil is in each tank?


R. SMITH: No, no, no. I want to see that. Where is it?

A few more clicks, and, all of a sudden, there are little numbers laid over each tank. The computer has taken satellite images, looked at the shadows on the roofs of the tanks. And the roofs for these oil tanks are floating, so they go up and down, up and down. The computer looks at the shadow, calculates the angle of the sun and can tell you the height of each roof.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And then as we go through everything that the algorithm has analyzed, we can see every tank's fill.

R. SMITH: So this says 17.5 percent full of this tank in China that you've never seen in your life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Correct. Well, I've seen it through satellite imagery.

R. SMITH: Of course.

Genscape just launched this service, a daily news feed telling customers how much oil there is stored in China. And even though it's based on Planet's satellite photos - satellite photos like the ones we will take - it is the analysis of the data. It's the way they cut it and use it and market it. That is what is making the money. And the service has been a hit. Oil companies, shipping firms, commodity traders can use these numbers to make decisions. When the oil tanks get low in China, you can literally start to send oil-filled ships across the Pacific before China even asks for it.

It seems like the logical end to this is that, someday, any time there is an additional well, an additional ship, an additional tank somewhere in the world, we're all going to know about it.

ALPHENAAR: That's right. Yeah. We're all going to know about it. And we're probably going to know within the day. And this is just one supply chain.

R. SMITH: It's just oil.

ALPHENAAR: Yeah. It's going to be the same for all commodities. But it's also going to be the same for how many new homes are being built, how much more traffic are on the highways...

R. SMITH: Avocados. Soybeans.

ALPHENAAR: ...How much more avocados are being grown. Yeah, exactly.

KULAS: Avocados are, like, Robert's atomic unit of measurement.

ALPHENAAR: Really? Avocados?

R. SMITH: Yes. I do always bring up avocados. But now that I have all these spy techniques in my mind, it gets me thinking about a possible mission for the PLANET MONEY satellite, for Pod 1. Now, I love avocados.

S. SMITH: I love avocados. I would support any avocado mission for Pod 1. Let's do avocados.

R. SMITH: As you know, Stacey, here in New York, avocados (laughter) are this pricing mystery. Someday, you'll go by a little store, and you'll be like, oh, my God. There's an avocado for a dollar. I'm totally getting that.

S. SMITH: That is a good day.

R. SMITH: That's a great day.

S. SMITH: I mean, yeah.

R. SMITH: But then you come back the next day.

S. SMITH: And they're, like, $3 apiece. Yes, all the time.

R. SMITH: Yeah. And who knows why, right? I would love some data that would tell me how prices are going to change in the avocado market. Before we leave Genscape, I give this pitch to Deirdre and her colleague Joseph Spelinka. I have the perfect name for our project.

The Guacamole Pipeline. I mean, the entire country needs guacamole for the Super Bowl. Nobody knows how many avocados are out there. I mean, maybe somebody knows. I mean, maybe everybody knows. But we don't know.

S. SMITH: So we could use our satellite to make a bet on the avocado supply before the Super Bowl.

R. SMITH: It sounds insane.

S. SMITH: (Laughter) Yes, it does.

R. SMITH: And you have to love the folks at Genscape because they listened to this, and they treated it like it was the most normal idea in the world.

JOSEPH SPELINKA: Yeah. Probably, we can look at a different part of the visible spectrum or a different part of the light spectrum to see growth quality the same way they do for corn and other crops in the United States, yeah.

R. SMITH: What else can we do? Count trucks - avocado trucks?

SPELINKA: Count trucks, count ships, count - I don't know if they store avocados in piles or put them on pallets or put them in buckets. But we can count those, as well. Yeah.

R. SMITH: Deirdre suggests that maybe there's some sort of avocado bottleneck somewhere we can monitor.

S. SMITH: I mean, why don't you just monitor, like, limes and tomatoes. I don't know. Really?

R. SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you're joking, but there is a name for this - tracking complementary commodities. It's actually one of the techniques they use at Genscape - you know, with the assumption that, you know, maybe the corn chip people know something that we don't about avocados.

S. SMITH: Let me get this straight for a second. We're going to use this cutting-edge technology, this, like, intergalactic whatever - (laughter) unprecedented moment in space technology to corner the guacamole market.

R. SMITH: Guacfinger.

S. SMITH: (Laughter).

R. SMITH: I am Guacfinger.

S. SMITH: (Singing) Guacfinger.

R. SMITH: (Vocalizing).

S. SMITH: (Laughter).

R. SMITH: OK. It is one of the missions we are looking into. There are some other options in case, you know, we want to use our satellite for, you know, good (laughter)...

S. SMITH: Right.

R. SMITH: ...Instead of guacamole evil.

S. SMITH: Right. Good.

R. SMITH: We've been talking to some researchers who need help collecting some data for farmers in Africa. That's a worthy project. We're going to know more about this once we can get the satellite into the sky and sending back real pictures.

S. SMITH: Yeah. When is that going to happen?

R. SMITH: That is an excellent question because, as we've been chasing the mission, there is this other big problem that we have not yet solved, which is, how do we put Pod 1, the PLANET MONEY satellite, into orbit?

S. SMITH: Next time on PLANET MONEY, we travel the globe, shopping for a rocket.

R. SMITH: Let's just say I know a guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I'm kind of like your best friend that's going to find you a rocket somewhere in the world that has extra space.


R. SMITH: Would you, the PLANET MONEY listener, like to join the avocado cartel? Or let's be honest. You probably have a better idea for what we should do with a satellite. Send us an email - You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Our handle is @planetmoney. Oh, and I am posting behind-the-scenes photos of our space journey on my Instagram, @radiosmith.

S. SMITH: And we have been getting some notes about the PLANET MONEY mission patch that you signed, Robert, the one featuring the squirrel.

R. SMITH: And a little gold star for every single member of the PLANET MONEY team. And we will tell you in the next episode next Wednesday how to get it.

S. SMITH: Today's episode was produced by Elizabeth Kulas, with an assist from Nick Fountain, Sally Helm and Kasia Mychajlowycz. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

R. SMITH: Special thanks today to Chris Biddy and Bronwyn Agrios of Astro Digital and Ajeeth Ibrahim from NanoRacks.


R. SMITH: I'm Robert Smith.

S. SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.

R. SMITH: Oh. Oh. Did I tell you about the shooting star guy we met?


R. SMITH: So we're at the Small Satellite Conference. And we're asking around - like, what is the weirdest way that anyone is making money off of satellites? And they said, oh, you've got to go talk to Josh Rodenbaum (ph) from this company called ALE. Here's what he does.

JOSH RODENBAUM: We are creating artificial shooting stars.

R. SMITH: Artificial shooting stars.

RODENBAUM: Artificial shooting stars.

S. SMITH: Wow. Really? Like, could you, like, buy one for your girlfriend or something?

R. SMITH: Exactly. So shooting stars are just little debris that go through the atmosphere.

S. SMITH: Right.

R. SMITH: And this guy's plan is he's going to launch a satellite with a bunch of little, fake shooting stars in them.

RODENBAUM: So what we do is we send up a satellite to low-Earth orbit with several hundred of our shooting star particles. When a customer calls, they say, hey, we want we want a meteor shower this night.

R. SMITH: So maybe I'm Tokyo. And I have the Olympics in...


R. SMITH: ...2020. And I want to end my opening ceremonies with shooting stars coming out of the sky.

RODENBAUM: That's right. We say OK. And when our satellite passes over, we release them. They burn. Even in this bright, bright city, you will be able to look up and see the stars.

R. SMITH: So he has not launched the satellite or sold any of these things yet. But he said a million dollars will buy you a pretty good show.

S. SMITH: I think that's a pretty great way to spend a million dollars, honestly - on a meteor shower?

R. SMITH: (Laughter) OK. I guess he's going to be rich.

S. SMITH: Right?

R. SMITH: I guess he's going to be rich.

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