A good rocket launch site has a few important characteristics. An unpopulated patch of land near an ocean is preferable, so no one gets showered with wayward bits of flaming metal. It’s also nice if it’s on the equator—like all spheres rotating on an axis, the Earth spins fastest in the middle, which provides rocket boosters with extra oomph. In other words, the best sites tend to be in remote, tropical locations. That such places are also often among the world’s poorest gives many launches a counterintuitive feel: billions of dollars in futuristic machinery rising up over rainforests and shantytowns.
That was so, at least, this February in Sriharikota, an island off India’s southeast coast, a couple of hours north of Chennai. To reach Sriharikota, which on maps looks like a 17-mile-long snake feasting on a 5-mile-wide goat, you cruise along a chaotic highway where semis vie for right of way with women carrying water buckets on their heads. Eventually you reach a causeway that, during the dry season, is flanked by marshlands, salt ponds, and mud. At the end of this road is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.
The facility, which opened in 1971 and was named for an Indian rocket scientist, looks more like a defunct disco than a gateway to tomorrow. At the check-in area, splotches of concrete peek through yellow-painted walls where photos of rockets and renowned engineers hang haphazardly. Beneath bulbs dangling from exposed wires, a team of friendly barefoot officials takes your information, then sends you outside to a mango-tree-shaded security gate. The police officers in olive-green uniforms and dark blue berets take no notice of the occasional white cow lumbering through the gate.
From there you reach a central compound of pastel-colored offices and living quarters, surrounded by a jungle of casuarina, eucalyptus, and palm trees. A ways away, at the water’s edge, is the launch pad. More cows collect outside the entry gate, while monkeys chatter in the trees.
At 9:28 a.m. on Feb. 15, these animals watched anxiously as an Indian rocket lifted off, roaring through the hot, sticky air. Its payload consisted of 104 satellites, dwarfing the previous world record of 37 set by Russia in 2014. The largest of them weighed 1,500 pounds and was designed to map India’s infrastructure and monitor urban and rural development. Nestled alongside were around a dozen smaller satellites from universities, startups, and research groups. What made the launch a record were the 88 shoebox-size “Dove” satellites built by Planet Labs Inc., a startup in San Francisco.
For the past few years, Planet has been sending batches of its Doves into orbit, each carrying a high-powered telescope and camera programmed to photograph a different swath of Earth. The 88 launched from Sriharikota would join 61 others to become the largest fleet ever put in orbit. Images beamed back by the 61 have been used far and wide: Hedge funds scour Walmart parking lots to measure traffic flows during back-to-school seasons. Farmers assess crop health and estimate optimal harvest times. Activists track Amazonian deforestation and Syrian refugee camps. Spies monitor military buildups and trafficking operations. With all 149 satellites in place, Planet will be able to photograph every inch of Earth’s surface every day—something even the U.S. government can’t do.
This satellite constellation is one of many signs that the relationship between humans and space is changing in ways unseen since Russia and the U.S. began sending rockets into orbit six decades ago. Thanks to modern software, artificial intelligence, advances in electronics and materials, and a generation of aggressive, unconventional entrepreneurs, we are awash in space startups. These companies envision an era in which rockets take off daily, filling the skies with satellites that sense Earth’s every action—in effect building a computational shell around our planet. The people constructing this bustling new economic highway promise it will improve life down below, but the future they describe is packed with wonder and controversy in equal measure—and although few have noticed, it’s coming to pass right now.
The New Space revolution’s satellite boom began near another marshland, two oceans away from Sriharikota, where the San Francisco Bay meets the border of Mountain View, Calif. There you’ll find the NASA Ames Research Center, marked by odd-shaped buildings and some hangars that once housed Depression-era airships and enormous old wind tunnels.