Satellites and Oil

On a warm June morning in 1965, the Gemini 4 space capsule took to the skies from Cape Kennedy, Florida. On board were 2 astronauts, their mission seemed simple enough, circle the earth for 4 day to test mans’ endurance in space and prepare for the long journey to the moon that was scheduled to take place in just a few years.

Whilst casually orbiting Earth one day, the astronauts suddenly observed a sight that startled them.  Reaching for their cameras, they quickly snapped photos of what they saw below…  oil was bubbling to Earth’s surface.

It was from this moment, we realised we could find oil from space.

The astronauts returned home to a sensation. The controversial photos were immediately snapped up and feverishly scrutinized. Geologists soon confirmed that the images depicted oil seeping to the surface in North Africa.

More manned missions followed, revealing oil and gas deposits over Africa and Australia.    Other countries became agitated by the findings,  Britain accused America of using unfair means to gain advantages in the oil business. (Gunter 1975)

Image from Gemini 9 Mission – Oil located in the top-right corner. (Source: NASA)

The promise of finding oil from space helped to develop a new satellite, named ‘Landsat’, its cameras would be pointed down towards Earth.

Launched in 1972, Landsat could monitor weather patterns, agriculture / crop health, disaster recovery,  urban sprawl and of course,  hunt for oil and natural resources.

Beaming images back from above, Landsat brought about many new findings.  One study found that of 35 oil candidates detected in the imagery, manned investigation on the ground confirmed that 33 correlated with the existence of oilfields (Collins et al. 1974)

Searching for oil from above offers the ability to effortlessly observe hard-to-reach places and vast oceans.  Data from Landsat brought about new techniques for detecting oil slicks on the ocean surface. (Halbouty, 1976)


(Source: ESA)

Landsat became a phenomenal success and spurred many successors in the program, continuing to today, Landsat 8 launched in 2013.

It wasn’t long before private industry stepped into the arena.

In an effort to reduce government spending on the expensive Landsat program,  US Congress enacted the ‘1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act’ encouraging private enterprise to launch and operate imaging satellites.

One company to emerge from the reform was DigitalGlobe,  to this day they still feature oil exploration on their website.


Private companies offer 3D renders of satellite data to help pin-point oil fields. (Source: Satellite Imaging Corp.)

As well as providing data on oil and minerals, these companies offer to support the mining process, mapping out pipelines and monitoring of oil rigs.

Oil exploration has come a long way from the early days of manned expeditions and aerial fly-by’s. Satellites will continue to play a vital role in supporting the energy industry whilst keeping watch over oil spill disaster recoveries.

The next pit-stop can be Saturn’s moon, Titan,  which contains hundreds of times more fuel than Earth.(hydrocarbons which are found in petroleum)4



1 Gunter, Paul, The Satellite Spin-Off, 1975
2 Collins, R, Mccown, F, Stonis, L, Petzel, G & Everett, J, An evaluation of the suitability of ERTS data for the purpose of petroleum exploration, 1974
3 Halbouty, M, Application of Landsat imagery to petroleum and mineral exploration, 1976

The Adidas Satellite

When we think of a soccer ball, we immediately picture the familiar black and white hexagon design. But this hasn’t always been the case. In 1970, Adidas unveiled a ‘revolutionary’ new soccer ball – its design was inspired by the telecommunication satellite, Telstar.


8 years prior to the Adidas soccer ball, a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying an experimental communication satellite.

Funded by AT&T at a price tag of $50 million ($392 million at today’s value) the satellite, Telstar, would soon revolutionize communications across the globe.

Once in orbit, the Telstar satellite was capable of relaying phone calls and faxes across continents, more impressive was its ability to transmit video signals, successfully broadcasting the first live televisions feed across the Atlantic ocean between the US, UK and France.

JFK live feed to Europe via the Telstar. Previous satellite transmissions had been limited to within the US continent.

The success of the Telstar satellite spurred a pop-culture sensation inspiring rock songs, home video game consoles and ultimately, the Adidas Telstar soccer ball.

Prior to the Adidas Telstar, soccer balls were either a brown or beige color, making it difficult to follow the ball on black & white televisions. The Adidas Telstar’s innovative black & white design made the ball a lot easier to follow on TV screens.

Inflatables in Space – A Timeline

Inflatable space structures can be traced back to the earliest days of NASA.  The simplest way to visualize these expandable objects is to think of a packed tent that pops open once in space.  Inflatables take up far less space on rockets than solid, prefabricated structures, yet they are vulnerable to small meteors and space debris that can puncture their outer shell.

To ensure maximum protection, multiple layers wrap around inflatables using the same materials found in bullet-proof vests.  Rigorous testing ensures the structure does not slowly deform or deflate over time.  Below we’ll take a look at some of the achievements in inflatable technology.

1960 –  Echo 1


A disco-ball in space.  The shiny, aluminum coated, Echo 1 pioneered satellite communication technology on Earth.

Echo 1 was an inflatable balloon placed into low Earth orbit by the telecommunication company AT&T and used to send the first spoken words through space.  Referred to at the time as ‘The Big Bounce’,  voice recordings of US President Eisenhower were broadcast from New Jersey,  bounced off the Echo balloon and received in California.

1961 – Goodyear Space Station.  It may come as a surprise, but in the 1960’s  tire company Goodyear were quite prolific in space technologies.


A Goodyear Blimp… in space?

NASA commissioned Goodyear to develop a prototype space station. Resembling a doughnut, the inflatable station could house two astronauts.   Plagued by durability issues, including the possibility of an astronaut ripping through the tube, NASA shelved the project, redirecting its focus on the Apollo Moon missions.

1965 – Voskhod-2


As the world watched in awe as the first ever astronaut stepped out into space, the milestone also celebrated the first manned inflatable spacecraft.   The Soviet’s Voskhod-2  included an inflatable, cylinder shaped air-lock that allowed the astronaut to float through and perform the first ever spacewalk.

1970’s – Space inflatables stagnated as NASA became preoccupied with the newly launched (non-inflatable) space-station, Skylab.

1984 – Vega Venus Missions


For the first time,  Earth balloons visited another planet.  After landing on Venus, the Soviet spacecraft Vega deployed two helium balloons that floated through the atmosphere for 46 hours.  The 4m  balloons collected data on the chemical composition of Venus’s atmosphere.

1990s – TransHab (Transit Habitat)


In the early 90s, NASA started planning for a successor to the International Space Station (ISS).  While the ISS keeps a stable orbit around earth, the new station would also serve as a spaceship, providing living quarters for astronauts on long duration flights, specifically to Mars.

The proposed design, TransHab, was an inflated station, favored for its compact prelaunch size and its thick exterior shell that protected astronauts from radiation and solar flares.

In 1998, under pressure to reduce the NASA budget, US Congress pulled the pin on the TransHab project.

2002 – Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas hotel tycoon with deep pockets and a deep passion for Space, approached NASA with an offer to purchase the plans and patents for TransHab.  Handing over an initial check for $400,000,  Bigelow continued to invested many millions into his new enterprise, Bigelow Aerospace.  For the first time, an excited public imagined space tourists checking in to a orbiting hotel.

2006 – Bigelow Aerospace – Genesis 1


Bigelow Aerospace launches their first space inflatable in 2006, the Genesis 1.  Shaped like a watermelon, the 4.5m x 3m habitat still orbits Earth today and is expected to burn up in the atmosphere by  2019. Included in the Genesis 1 were experiments with cockroaches and Mexican jumping beans.

2007Genesis 2 by Bigelow Aerospace is launched.  Identical in size to the first build, the Genesis 2 saw improvements in the guidance control system, additional cameras and larger gas tanks to ensure a smoother expansion of the module.  For a fee, the public could send photographs and other personal items to fly inside the habitat.

2009 – NASA HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator)


NASA begins testing an inflatable heat shield to protect and slow down crafts on re-entry to Earth.   The shield is particularly useful for returning cargo from the ISS ..and has even been considered for safely delivering an asteroid to Earth.  NASA is researching scalable heat shields for use in other planets, namely Mars, Venus and Titan.

2011 –  Russian space company, RKK Energia, unveiled designs for an inflatable habitat to retrofit the ISS.  The project is still in the design phase and the company is expecting to build a small scale prototype by 2015.

2015 – Bigelow Aerospace BEAM ( Bigelow Expandable Activity Module)


NASA has approved an extension to the International Space Station using a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module.  The attachment is to be completed in 2015 for the sole purpose of testing and feasibility, that is, the astronauts will not live full-time inside the Bigelow habitat.

2016 – Inspiration Mars


Billionaire Investment banker (and space tourist) Dennis Tito announced an ambitious plan to send 2 astronauts around the orbit of Mars in 2016.  Whilst details of the project are not fully disclosed, the concept illustration depicts an inflatable habitat attached to the spacecraft.

2016 and beyond.  It has taken many decades for inflatables to be recognized as a safe and financially viable medium for space travel. Advances in materials and a commitment from private enterprise has rejuvenated interest in this technology.  Today, it looks promising that the first ever orbiting hotel will be an inflatable living space.

The Future Of Asteroid Hunting

In the recent NASA budget approval, US Congress gave the thumbs down to the Asteroid Initiative program, raising questions to the cost-benefit of bringing an asteroid into the Moon’s orbit.

The mission may have been a victim of its own grandiose ambitions, from asteroid prospecting to asteroid capture, asteroid transportation to lunar orbit, then sending over astronauts to climb the rock.  The mission was more of an engineering challenge than of scientific value and Congress raised eyebrows to its uncertain price-tag and unclear timeline.


Image –  A proposal from the NASA Asteroid Capture workshop. 10m long robotic fingers wrap around and grasp an asteroid.  The fingers are padded to prevent debris flying off whilst also serving as a ladder for astronauts to climb the asteroid.  (MDA Corp)

Disappointed supporters of the Asteroid program claim that it best prepares us for more distant manned missions, highlighted by NASA director Charles Bolden, “the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, is an important stepping stone on the path to Mars”    Critics dismissed this as simply another lunar mission and not venturing deep enough into space.

Private industry still at it..

Private enterprise is not deterred and are aiming to launch asteroid prospecting telescopes in the coming years.  Asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries CEO David Grump seems to support Congress’s attitude, viewing asteroids as “amazing resources to support exploration and development of the Moon, Mars, and Earth orbit, rather than destinations requiring government visits.”


Image – Deep Space Industries asteroid hunting Firefly CubeSats.


Image – In 4 years, B612 Foundation’s Sentinel telescope will launch into the Sun’s orbit, creating a 3D map of millions of asteroids swarming Earth’s neighborhood.  Data from the telescope will identify any asteroids that may hit Earth over the next 100 years.


Image – After a  phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign last year,  Planetary Resources are on track to release their Arkyd-100 telescope in 2015.  The public will be invited to join an online observing platform to aid in the discovery and identification of asteroids.

The Asteroid Hunters







Proposed Launch






6 years

 2 – 4 years

Size comparison

Coffee Machine











Cost (estimate)

 $1-2 million1 $450 million2 $1 million3

While the future of the NASA Asteroid Redirection program is uncertain,  it’s important to remember that it’s Congress’s responsibility to question and scrutinize these programs.  Throwing money at frivolous, poorly planned programs could jeopardize the success of other NASA missions.  In the meantime, we can turn to the private sector to lead innovation and momentum in this field.

New Startups Watching Us From Space

Silicon Valley startups are vying for eyes in the skies.

The intention is to open up satellite imagery and footage to commercial interests, as well as turn ‘big data’ collected from satellites into meaningful insights.  Some examples these companies cite include… real-time monitoring of freight / logistics, capturing the impact of natural disasters, fire, flood and being able to assist coordinating humanitarian efforts.

So how do these startups rise up to each other…











Launch Date

Dec 2013 (pending) – 2 cameras attached to the ISS.

April 2013 – 2 test cubesats launched.

Nov 2013 – 2 cubesats

2014 – 28 cubesats

Nov 2013 – 1 satellite

2014 – 1 satellite


Public – market cap $130M (CAD)

Private – $65.1M (USD)

Private – $91M (USD)


Live HD Video


Live HD Video and Imagery





Accurate as of 1/2014

1 Employees on LinkedIn

Urthecast focuses on video services and will offer a free online platform for viewers to ‘live stream’ Earth.  A paid-for premium model will be available for commercial interests.


(Credit: Twitter @DutchManPaul)

Image – The Urthecast ‘Iris’ camera inside the ISS.  They hit a glitch after installing the cameras to the exterior of the ISS,  there was no signal.  The cameras were immediately removed and taken back inside the station for further analysis.  More news is expected mid-January 2014.

Planet Labs aim to launch the largest ‘flock’ of imaging cubesats, more than 28 in total, making it possible to capture a complete picture of the globe at any given time. It is unclear how they will charge for the data, their website states that they will provide ‘open-information’ to the public.


(Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.)

Image – The flock of ‘Dove’ satellites from Planet Labs, each sat is disposable with a lifespan of one to three years. Planet Labs believe in the ‘power in numbers’ approach… and the advantage of having a renewed fleet every few years.

Skybox Imaging beat Urthecast to the title of world’s first ever ‘live HD video’ when their satellite commenced operation in late December 2013.  Their services boast both video and imagery, as well as a team of data analysts to make sense of all the data flooding in.


(Credit: Skybox Imaging, Inc.)

Image –  Skybox Imaging Sky-Sat 1 in the lab, the ‘mini-fridge’ sized sat went into orbit November 2013.  Their second sat, Sky-Sat 2 is scheduled for a 2014 launch.

Of course, while not a ‘startup’ exactly, we have to send a shout-out to DigitalGlobe who have been in the game since ’92 and have 5 satellites whizzing around us.  Ever heard of Google Maps ??  Yep, well these guys provided the satellite imagery!

How To Find A Supermassive Black Hole

Deep in the night sky, in the constellation of Sagittarius, shrouded by interstellar gas and dust, lies a mysterious object.   So enigmatic is this object, it cannot be observed directly, not even light can escape its presence.  This object found at the core of our Milky Way galaxy is of incredible mass, equaling millions of suns and yet stretches across an area smaller than our solar system.     It is of course, a         supermassive black hole.

Intrigued by the notion of these gigantic black holes silently churning away at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, astronomers discovered the first supermassive black hole (SMBH) candidate through radio telescopes in the 1970’s. (Balick & Brown 1974)  Almost a decade later the object was officially entitled Sagittarius A* (Brown 1982)

The strongest evidence for our galaxy’s own SMBH was conducted decades later by astronomers who carefully observed the motion of stars around the Milky Ways’ center over a 15 year period.  They observed that stars were orbiting in an elliptical motion around an invisible object. (Gillessen 2009)


(Credit – ESO / MPE, 2011)

Image – Observations of Sagittarius A* using the European Southern Observatory’s – Very Large  Telescope have captured infra-red images of doomed stars and gas circling our galaxy’s SMBH.   The circled image identifies a gas cloud which astronomers anticipate witnessing first-hand as it falls into the event-horizon in the coming years.

By measuring the orbits of these doomed stars around our SMBH, astronomers were able to determine the mass and area of this invisible object.    With the velocity and the orbit know, it was calculated that the density of our Milky Way’s SMBH is 4 Million solar masses in an area of 44 million kilometers.   (Schödel et al. 2003)

Amazed by the discovery of Sagittarius A*, astronomers were curious to know if other galaxies hosted these supermassive objects.  Peering outside of our own Milky Way galaxy, scientists studied the spectral image of gas circling the center of distant galaxies.

Gas was moving so rapidly around their galactic centers, scientist could watch the redshift and blueshift of its motion.  As the gas was whirling towards our telescopes – the spectral lines would shift towards the blue, as they spirals away from our telescopes the spectral lines would shift to the red.


(Gary Bower, Richard Green (NOAO) / STIS Instrument Definition Team, NASA, 1997)

Image – The above Spectral image shows gas hurling around the core of galaxy M84.  By accurately measuring the velocity of the gases orbit (360km a second) scientists could conclude that the mass of an object to create this velocity would equate to 300 million solar masses.

These are by no means unique cases, the universe appears to be littered with supermassive black holes. By peering back even deeper in time, astronomers using the space telescopes Hubble and Chandra X-ray, were able to identify over 30 million SMBHs, with the earliest having existed 700 million years after the big bang. (Treister 2011)



Balick B,  Brown, R 1974, ApJ, 194, 265
Brown,R.L. 1982, ApJ, 262, 110
Eso Public Image Library –
Gillessen, S, et al. 2009, ApJ, 2009, 692, 1075-1109
Schödel R, et al.  2003 ApJ 596 1015
Treister, E , et al. 2011 Nature 474, 356–358