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The Orbiter: Satellites and Public Health
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How Satellite Data Can Unlock Climate and Socioeconomic Insights During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Isil Demir, Director, Mission Systems, Planet
Member of the 2019 “20 Under 35” cohort
Isil Demir

2020 started with humanity in a battle against the first epidemic of modern times. As we try to grapple with the situation we find ourselves in, an undeniable truth has emerged. We need data and analytics, now more than ever, and satellites can be an important piece of the puzzle for helping to monitor and potentially mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

Obviously, satellites cannot detect viruses from space. However, they can detect certain patterns that may indicate a potential or ongoing epidemic. By consistently monitoring at-risk locations, they can provide crucial data for recovery models that authorities can use in their disease outbreak response plans. Planet's large fleet of Earth-imaging satellites offers a daily view of the entire land mass of the world, and is uniquely suited to monitoring location-specific indicators.

San Pedro Bay
As restrictions on work and travel dramatically reduced energy use, oil tankers clustered near the Port of Long Beach, unable to disgorge their cargo. These PlanetScope images show the increase in ships moored in San Pedro Bay from March 8, 2020 (left), to May 5, 2020 (right). Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

There are aspects to this pandemic that may prove to be uniquely insightful for the biggest challenge of our lifetimes: climate change. With most countries employing some level of social distancing or lockdown measures, the breakneck speed of human activity on the face of the Earth has dramatically slowed down. This small respite in human activity, and the subsequent fall in carbon dioxide emissions could prove to be a unique window into industrial history, providing scientists a rare glimpse of what Earth may look like when certain pollution factors are absent. This could aid scientists in creating better climate recovery models, and could help governments and organizations meet their sustainable development goals.

What a pandemic this severe means for the world economy remains to be seen. In the meantime, satellite imagery can be used to measure the economical impact, providing geospatial insight into the distribution of resources by means of tracking ships, airplanes, and monitoring ports. Near real-time imagery from space can unlock data analysis opportunities and help experts make informed decisions on where to focus their efforts.

Mount Ananea near La Rinconada, Peru
Tropical glaciers provide a crucial source of drinking water for the people living downstream. Planet’s satellites can monitor these glaciers as they change in response to a warming world, and help the communities that depend on them prepare for the future. This image shows the glaciated slopes of Mount Ananea near La Rinconada, Peru, collected on April 21, 2020. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

Time and again, we have seen space exploration unite people across nations and ideologies, towards a greater purpose. The COVID-19 pandemic, however terrible, showed us that we can come together as one, and take decisive actions to tackle a problem that is affecting all of humanity. Our assets in space, regardless of whom they belong to, can offer a systematic, data-driven, and analysis-ready picture of our Earth, as we brave through this crisis together, united as a species.

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