Imaging to tackle climate crisis

Date Published: 23.11.2020

“This is an ecosystem emergency…the crisis of our age” said Wadham alumnus Will Marshall speaking at an Oxford Physics event this week.

Will Marshall (left) as a student with Wadham Emeritus Fellow Sir Roger Penrose (right), and today (inset).

Will (DPhil Theoretical Physics, 2000), co-founder and CEO of Planet, knows what he is talking about.

Planet captures some 3 million images of the Earth’s landmass every day via a network of satellites.

These images provide essential information to companies, governments, civil society, academia, media and more.  From working with NASA to track climate variables to working with NGOs like Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, the data is helping address issues as diverse as deforestation and the health of the world’s coral reefs to effective firefighting techniques and the results from pandemic lockdown on the planet.

Images showing changes in soil moisture allow archaeologists to study ancient cities. Images which capture storm events show how plastics are carried into the open sea. Planet data is used to study earthquakes and glacier retreat, changes in rivers, air pollution, permafrost, ecosystems and more.

Will told his online audience about his own trajectory to becoming co-founder and CEO of Planet, a space company that operates the largest-ever constellation of earth imaging satellites

“I had been into space long before joining Oxford” said Will who built his first telescope when he was 16. He studied for his DPhil in Physics at Wadham after completing a Masters in Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester. After working on various planetary missions at NASA, Will became increasingly interested in Earth and the climate crisis where “there seemed a lot we could do.”

He and a group of friends left NASA to work on pioneering imagery satellites that would be able to image the whole of the earth every day. By making these images available to all that needed them he felt the project could help alleviate poverty and hunger as well as help us meet sustainability goals.

The first challenge was to shrink the existing NASA satellites, so the Planet team came up with a more compact design, which they called Dove satellites. Over 130 are in operation today and, according to Will, “they act like a live scanner for the planet.”  Planet is able to image anywhere on Earth’s landmass on a daily basis, at 3 - 5 meter resolution. This allows areas of interest to be monitored and trends discovered.

Planet also has 21 SkySats in orbit, which capture insights an average of 5-10 times per day in areas that are traditionally very challenging for imaging due to low satellite capacity.

What next? Indexing the earth is the plan. Planet is incorporating artificial intelligence and other date to index the earth and make it searchable in the same way that Google allows you to search the internet.

And is humanity going to be able to address the climate crisis? Will believes that the COVID pandemic has a small silver lining: “We have seen ourselves capable of massive changes,” he said. Applying such change to the climate emergency could make a difference.

Will was speaking at an event organised by Wadham and the University of Oxford Department of Physics, ‘Picture-perfect planet: observing the Earth from hundreds of satellites.’ The talk was introduced by Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics, and Philip Stier, Professor of Atmospheric Physics.

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