Accessing Real-time Satellite Imagery and Data

Mark Altaweel


Satellite data including satellite images has repeatedly proven its utility in so many fields that scientists increasingly would like to see it made practically free.

Despite the widespread availability of popular mapping tools like Google Earth, which have helped the general public better understand their utility, there remains an area in the age of real-time data where it is clear that something is still missing.

Real-Time and On Demand Satellite Images

This is the area of real-time and on demand satellite data accessible from our phones or devices. Tools and applications such as SpyMeSat are beginning to change this, by giving the public access to up-to-date satellite imagery on demand from their phones.[1]

The benefits of developing such data availability, such as high resolution current satellite images and in different forms of imagery including multi-spectral, are important to scientists who need to continually monitor global change, land use, and climate.

A Call for Open Access Satellite Images

This has led to calls for open access satellite images and data, where information becomes more easily available and allowing more scientists to benefit from high resolution and multi- and even potentially hyper-spectral imagery.[2] 

For the public, real-time data like high resolution satellite imagery as well as open access data could be of great utility, as it allows observations of places of interest, such as businesses planning activities, including routing of shipments, or government bodies being able to monitor areas more effectively, including disaster relief.

Near Real-Time Satellite Imagery and Data

NASA has developed in recent years a platform, called Land, Atmosphere Near Real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE), to provide near real-time data such as Landsat Imagery to those needing data and use of platforms such as MODIS. In this case, data are available as quick as within 3 hours of when imagery was taken.[3] 

While such imagery access is relatively rapid, it still prevents individuals and organizations from accessing data that needs to be more immediate. For example, monitoring large-scale forest fires or rapidly changing disasters requires quicker data access than 3 hours.

Real-time drone imagery is also not always available.

Screenshot showing a partial list of NASA's LANCE products.
Partial list of NASA’s LANCE products.

Automating Image and Data Processing for Real-Time Satellite Products

To develop real-time data provision, better data access is required for applications that can automate image processing and transfer for applications. The technology is there but one issue is bandwidth to enable more rapid data transfer from satellite systems to applications or tools that can begin to utilize data.

Now, however, new impetus by investors has made it possible to have the first true real-time satellite data monitoring application. EarthNow, a new space imaging startup, is promising users real-time data access and even real-time video access that can then be integrated with other applications.

This startup has some big names and companies financially supporting it and influencing its development, including Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, Airbus, SoftBank, and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler.[4]

Screenshot from the EarthNow website.

What Kind of Real-Time Satellite Images and Data Will be Made Available?

One issue with this development is what type of satellite systems will provide such data? Will it only be imagery visible from satellites that provide a predefined spatial resolution and limited range within the electromagnetic spectrum.

Even EarthNow is saying it would provide streaming video data or even stills but scientists and the wider public may also need other types of imagery in real-time. For instance, data on vegetation change is not as easily noticed simply using imagery visible only to the naked eye.

Different satellite systems, and not just one, should be able to provide continuous, real-time data. Additionally, the availability of real-time data might be controlled by private companies, meaning data becomes restricted.

This will mean a likely continual dependence on NASA or other providers that create open platforms and systems. This will also likely mean in the near future having real-time access that is also open source is probably not feasible.[5]

One the one hand, companies such as EarthNow are likely going to bring us real-time satellite imagery that can be accessible in our phones or computers. However, this might not mean the types of satellite systems that scientists and others depend on.

Furthermore, as private companies lead the charge in this area, public data accessibility could become an issue, potentially limiting sectors of the public and scientists. For now, among the best sources for scientists and the wider public are platforms such as LANCE. It may take some time before this changes, but calls made by researchers for open satellite data may change the picture.


[1]    For more on SpyMeSat, see:

[2]    For more on calls for open access satellite imagery, see: Turner, W., Rondinini, C., Pettorelli, N., Mora, B., Leidner, A. K., Szantoi, Z., … Woodcock, C. (2015). Free and open-access satellite data are key to biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation, 182, 173–176.

[3]    For more on LANCE developed by NASA, see:

[4]    For more on EarthNow, see:

[5]    For more on the issue of real-time and near real-time data, including open and public access, see:  Gopinath, G. (2015). Free data and Open Source Concept for Near Real Time Monitoring of Vegetation Health of Northern Kerala, India. Aquatic Procedia, 4, 1461–1468.

See Also

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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