Space is getting a lot more crowded: About 3,000 satellites currently orbit the earth, a number that's quickly growing as more companies look to commercialize the skies. And a lot of them do much more than just take beautiful pictures.

Here are a few startups finding cool use cases for sending objects into orbit.

TellusLabs

The Boston-based startup, which launched in late July, is giving a new set of tools to agriculturists. The company uses satellite data from NASA, plus weather information and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to predict crop yields for upcoming seasons. The initial product, Kernal, uses machine learning algorithms to estimate outputs for--you guess it--corn, America's most widely produced crop with more than $50 billion in sales each year. TellusLabs updates its data daily and uses a stock market-style ticker to show changing estimates on the state or county level. The startup will soon produce similar tools for other natural resources. In internal tests, the company says its estimates were more accurate than those of the USDA 69 percent of the time.

Spire

Most satellites are big. Spire makes ones that fit into your hand. The company contracts aerospace firms like SpaceX to send its "nanosatellites" into orbit, where they collect data that can be sent back to other companies. Spire specializes in gathering information over the two-thirds of the earth that's covered in oceans--areas that are largely ignored by most other satellites. The tiny satellites observe the weather and maritime data to alert people at sea of what's ahead. Spire says it can also monitor ships in distress, pirates, or illegal fishermen--its satellites track when ships' beacons are turned off, which is a warning sign--helping keep the oceans more secure. Spire, which is based in San Francisco and raised $40 million last year, currently has a dozen satellites in space and wants that number to reach 100 by 2017.

Deep Space Industries

If you believe the Internet-age legend, the 1998 movie Armageddon was so inaccurate that NASA uses it as a training exercise to quiz new employees on the hundreds of scientific impossibilities. Maybe that's a myth and maybe it isn't--but the film's generally accepted ridiculousness hasn't stopped Deep Space Industries from pursuing its basic premise of landing on an asteroid. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company plans to launch a satellite within the next four years that would survey a nearby asteroid for ice. The startup's long-term plan is to mine asteroids and extract water that other spacecraft could use as a propellant. The thinking is that this water could be bought at a cost lower than would be necessary to send water up from earth. It sounds sort of crazy, but nobody thought Bruce Willis would be able to stay back and push that button to save humanity, right?

Orbital Insight

Want to know how many cars traveled the highways in Los Angeles today, or how many acres of forest have been cleared in Brazil since last year? Orbital Insight uses photos taken from space and applies algorithms to track just about everything. The Google Ventures-backed company can be a useful tool for anything from malls and retailers (the number of vehicles entering and leaving parking lots) to farmers and environmentalists (the size of a drought-affected area). The Palo Alto-based startup doesn't have its own satellites--instead it buys photos from some of the many companies, like Airbus and DigitalGlobe, snapping pictures from space.

Published on: Aug 12, 2016