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Aerospace engineer: Space is like the 'Wild West,' with trillions of dollars to be made from surveillance and communications

Moriba Jah, aerospace engineer and 2019 TED Fellow
Photo courtesy TED

Gazing at the stars from Earth is awe-inspiring, but would you find it less so knowing there are satellites peering back at you?

Space surveillance is going to be big business, says aerospace engineer Moriba Jah, and what's more, it's like the Wild West up there.

Remote sensing, as Jah calls it — especially information that can be connected to the Internet of Things or tied to human activity on the ground to create a mega-set of information — is "like the new gold, the new platinum these days"; it's very valuable and many are going after it, Jah tells CNBC Make It.

"It's like a gold rush because people see, 'Oh, wow, there are trillions of dollars to be made with space-based services. There are no space traffic rules. It's like the Wild West. I'm just going to go up there and make my claim and make my money and get out,'" Jah, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a 2019 TED Fellow, said recently on the Recode Decode podcast.

"I'll put it this way: People are very surprised with the level of knowledge that a company like Google might have. If [companies] start incorporating space-based information and linking that with stuff going on the ground, that's going to blow people's minds, big time," he told Recode Decode. Google did not respond to CNBC Make It's requests for comment.

Using cameras in space to help with disaster relief, like NASA used its satellite technology to help fight the California wildfires last year, is one thing. But "human-based activity monitoring, that's a big deal," Jah said.

That could be "everything from government intelligence agencies that want to track motion of certain people around the planet, to people that might say, 'Hey, I want to see what kind of cars are being driven in this parking lot on what days of the week so I can figure out how to strategize and market,'" Jah told Recode Decode.

Clearly, that kind of vision from the sky raises privacy concerns.

Jah says he is not aware of any privacy laws "about having things on orbit looking down on Earth, Earth observations systems. There's no privacy stuff wrapped around that. And you have things with enough resolution these days that you could see things down to three feet," Jah tells CNBC Make It.

At least one company involved in space monitoring says privacy is not an issue for its purposes. Jah points to Planet Labs, which has more than 150 satellites in orbit that can monitor changes in things like roads, forests and agriculture. The company tells CNBC Make It it "values privacy" and even with its "highest resolution imagery, it remains impossible to see a person — let alone identify one from another — identify a car type, or otherwise discern any identifying information," says company representative Claire Bentley, explaining that "a car represents three-four pixels."

Still, the information that can be garnered from space "should be alarming to people," Jah tells CNBC Make It.

He says there needs to be international conversations and regulation of space surveillance technology, and he is building a crowdsourced map of what's in space and where it is. The objects Jah is tracking include not only satellites but an estimated half a million pieces of "space junk," which is debris from old spacecraft. Currently, there isn't a uniform map of what's in space and where each object is located, Jah said.

The other area of space services that will be a primary source of revenue, according to Jah, is communications.

Already SpaceX and Amazon are in the satellite game, and "now they all want to rush to send thousands of satellites up there to provide global internet," Jah told Recode Decode.

Indeed, Elon Musk recently joked on Twitter that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was a "copycat" for announcing the launch of internet satellites after SpaceX. And on Saturday Musk shared a first look at SpaceX's Starlink satellites.

SpaceX pointed out to CNBC Make It that it was after years of work that in March 2018 it was granted permission by regulators to operate a satellite system to "bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the United States and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks," according to Federal Communications Commission documents.

An Amazon spokesperson pointed CNBC Make It to its Project Kuiper, a "long term initiative to launch a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world," according to the project's website. Amazon plans to launch more than 3,000 satellites as part of the project but "it will be years before the service is available," according to the spokesperson.

Jah, who shared his ideas at TED in Vancouver in April, says at some point, the Wild West that is space will be more carefully scrutinized.

"People still haven't connected all the dots. But once that happens, things are going to be quite different," Jah tells CNBC Make It.

See also:

This NASA image shows how California's wildfires are affecting the atmosphere

NASA and this Google employee are using AI to find new planets, with an eye toward finding alien life

Elon Musk calls Jeff Bezos a 'copycat' on Twitter, for launching satellites

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Here's what it will be like to travel to Mars in Elon Musk's spaceship
Moriba Jah, aerospace engineer and 2019 TED Fellow
Photo courtesy TED
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