In When the Heavens Went on Sale (Ecco, May), journalist Vance explores how the private sector is shaping the current space age.

What is unique about the space exploration scene right now?
Since the first space age began, space has been controlled by a handful of governments. We are now in a moment when that is changing and the capitalists have really taken over.

What interested you about that change?
So much attention gets paid to Mars colonization and moon settlements, when in fact the bulk of space activity now is happening in low-Earth orbit. It’s real business. We’ve already put up hundreds and thousands of satellites just in the last few years, and they are doing spectacular things. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is creating Starlink, a kind of global internet that’s already played a major role in the war in Ukraine. Planet Labs and its imaging satellites are providing a sort of real-time accounting system of what’s happening on Earth. We can measure and watch the world from an environmental standpoint like never before—we can count every single tree on the planet and calculate their biomass and how much carbon dioxide they can eat up. We can watch as a rainforest is cut down. In South America we’re seeing agencies act on that information in real time to stop deforestation.

What role did private satellites play in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Ukraine didn’t have their own imaging satellites. There’s a very strong case to be made that in the earliest days of the siege of Kyiv, the imagery Ukraine obtained from commercial satellites allowed the country to see the Russians’ every move and to prepare for this onslaught. The Russians totally underestimated the Ukrainians’ ability to see them at night through this one class of commercial satellite, synthetic aperture radar, and the Russians were totally caught off guard by how the Ukrainians knew their every move. The Russians had set things up to take out Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure, but the Ukrainians just routed around that completely through the use of the space internet.

Is there a real threat from the rapid, largely unregulated proliferation of those satellites?
Just in the last two years, we’ve doubled the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit, and we’re going to double that again, and again, and again, in very short order. The risk of a collision is pretty shocking because we’re now building more of our future computing infrastructure in space, and if something goes wrong, it becomes unusable quite quickly.