News events don’t get much bigger than the current pandemic, and Maxar’s satellites have been documenting the virus’s spread by way of its effect on human activity. In late January, near the peak of the Wuhan outbreak, the cloudy weather meant that Maxar couldn’t see what was going on. But once the skies cleared, satellites were able to capture crystal-clear images of enormous hospitals being constructed in a matter of days. “I’ve absolutely never seen anything like that,” Wood says. “It’s unprecedented.”
Read all of our coronavirus coverage here .
The virus’s ripple effects can be seen from space in other ways as well. Airport rental car lots are suddenly filled with cars, since no one is traveling. Religious sites like the Kaaba and St. Peter’s Square are nearly vacant. Cities from Milan to San Francisco have emptied out. “With every city that I’ve looked at over the past week, I’ve seen progressively fewer and fewer people,” Wood says. “As far as I can tell, people are taking this seriously. Governments are taking it seriously.” The one exception to this global self-quarantine, he says, seems to be the Florida beaches that remained packed with spring breakers until just recently.
Because Maxar has a two-decade-old image library of nearly every square mile of Earth, its analysts can easily compare today’s images with yesterday’s, or last year’s, to determine what has changed. As the pandemic unfolds, that information might be useful to governments trying to enforce quarantines or deciding where to build new hospitals. Most of all, though, Maxar wants to provide the world with a visual history of the pandemic as seen from space.
“We play this archival role to document the impact of what is happening during this historic time,” Wood says. “We’re able to see things that few people have the chance to see. I feel like that’s our mission right now—to provide visual transparency.” In a world thrown into chaos by a microscopic virus, sometimes it helps to take the 400-mile-view.
WIRED is providing unlimited free access to stories about the coronavirus pandemic . Sign up for our Coronavirus Update to get the latest in your inbox.
More From WIRED on Covid-19
- Gear and tips to help you get through a pandemic
- The doctor who helped defeat smallpox explains what's coming
- Everything you need to know about coronavirus testing
- Don’t go down a coronavirus anxiety spiral
- How is the virus spread? (And other Covid-19 FAQs, answered)
- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here