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Hyperspectral satellite imagery could be a climate-protecting superpower

Pixxel's satellites will provide unprecedented views of the Earth, and they could help spot fugitive emissions and other climate risks.

Satellite imagery in black and white and hyperspectral.

There's a new way to see the planet.

Photos: Pixxel

Sometimes it’s easier to zero in on what needs fixing from the outside looking in. At least, that’s the basis of Pixxel’s argument for a future network of microsatellites monitoring the planet from space. The first of the company’s planned “constellation” of satellites launched on Friday, hitching a ride on SpaceX’s Transporter-4 mission.


The satellite launched on Friday has one of the highest-resolution hyperspectral commercial cameras ever flown. Pixxel co-founders Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal said in a blog post that the company has plans for a collection of six hyperspectral satellites that “will be able to cover any point on the globe every 48 hours.”

If you are scratching your head about how this technology differs from the satellites already zipping around in space, here's a small digression on what we can and can't see with our current suite of Earth-observing tech.

Satellite imagery in black and white and hyperspectral. The Pixxel satellites will have a resolution of 10 meters per pixel. GIF: Pixxel

There are generally two broad types of imaging equipment on satellites. One delivers traditional images that rely solely on the visible light spectrum. These are, in essence, high-end cameras encircling the Earth. The second type of technology, though, delivers multispectral images that capture a handful of bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. A multispectral image, for example, could 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 the traditional and multispectral images, land is largely pictured with a single color, despite the variation of mineral content.

But in hyperspectral images, Pixxel’s bread-and-butter, data is collected across 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 what could be uncovered by its technology.

Satellite imagery in traditional, multispectral and hyperspecrtal. Hyperspectral imagery offers a vast improvement on the other forms of Earth observations.Image: Pixxel

Existing hyperspectral satellites launched by organizations such as NASA have resolutions of 30 meters per pixel, whereas Pixxel promises 10 meters per pixel. The 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 matter of weeks. It plans to launch its first commercial phase satellites in early 2023, and will begin selling its data commercially around that time.

While these images are intriguing purely from a voyeuristic standpoint — am I alone in being excited to get visuals of the soil and water health of Sinaloa? — and stunning as pieces of art, they also offer an opportunity for climate and environmental accountability.

Take methane, for instance. On-the-ground methane leak tracking is a painstaking and costly process while satellite estimates aren't always quite granular enough to pinpoint emissions. While it might sound like something out of science fiction, reliable detection from a low-orbit satellite could simplify that process. Of course, that requires those of us back here on the ground to ensure that data actually gets used to fix problems in the first place.

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