Home Commercial How commercial satellites are shaping the conflict in Ukraine

How commercial satellites are shaping the conflict in Ukraine


Published on: Amended:

Washington (AFP) – Whether it’s a huge Russian military convoy winding its way towards Kiev, missile strikes or refugee crossings, commercial satellite imagery of the Ukrainian conflict helps lift the fog of war, illuminating for the public what was previously the domain of spy agencies.

Technologies capable of breaking through cloud cover and operating at night are also highlighted, as a growing army of open source intelligence analysts offer near real-time assessments of battlefield developments.

“Governments are no longer the only place to go for high-precision satellite data,” Craig Nazareth, a former US intelligence officer turned researcher at the University of Arizona, told AFP.

Thanks to the explosive growth of the private satellite industry, the volume of imagery is greater and the turnaround times faster than in past conflicts, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

While most Western governments have their own sophisticated satellite assets, their classified nature means images cannot be shared.

And with public trust in the US and UK governments shaken after the 2003 Iraq War, third-party footage helped fill credibility gaps.

“They say ‘Look, this isn’t us, this is what’s really happening, we’re not making anything up,'” Nazareth said.

In addition to helping shape narratives, the images directly aid Ukrainian forces in their war efforts.

“Capella Space is working directly with the U.S. and Ukrainian governments as well as other commercial entities to provide timely data and assistance around the ongoing conflict,” company CEO Payam Banazadeh confirmed in a statement to the AFP.

Radar imaging

It was images taken by the San Francisco startup that led a group of independent researchers to realize the invasion was underway, before Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operations” in the early morning hours of February 24.

– Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/AFP

Hours before this speech, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in California tweeted that Google Maps showed a “traffic jam” on the road from Belgorod, Russia to the Ukrainian border.

This was the exact location where Capella Space had previously seen a convoy of military vehicles, and the congestion likely reflected Russian civilians stuck at roadblocks as military vehicles passed.

“Someone is on the move,” he correctly surmised.

While most satellite imagery requires daylight and clear skies to capture images, Capella Space works with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) – in which sensors shoot down energy and then record the amount which is reflected to them.

SAR “penetrates through clouds and smoke, even during very large storms or fires, so we can reliably capture clear, accurate images of Earth in almost any condition,” said Dan Getman, the company’s vice president of product.

Another company whose footage has been widely used by the news media is BlackSky, which published what it believes was one of the first engagements of the war – an attack on the Luhansk Thermal Power Plant shortly after 4:00 p.m. , local time, on February 23.

“We have a constellation of small satellites that can see dawn until dusk, not just certain times of the day,” company CEO Brian O’Toole told AFP.

In traditional polar orbits, which fly north to south, a satellite can only take two snapshots of a particular location per day – but BlackSky flies its hardware counterclockwise to the planet’s rotation, which allows them to revisit areas more often.

Customers receive the images within 90 minutes and are helped to interpret them by AI-enabled software.

Future ethical concerns?

Perhaps the most vivid image of the conflict so far has been that of the 64km-long Russian convoy, captured by Maxar, “the grandfather of industry”, according to Chris Quilty of Quilty Analytics.

He explained that unlike traditional satellites which only point downwards, Maxar’s satellites have gyroscopes which allow them to rotate and target more accurately.

The U.S. government, through the National Reconnaissance Office, is one of Maxar’s primary customers, dictating “shutter time,” which is why the company and others spend so much time on l Ukraine right now.

This Maxar satellite image taken and released on February 25, 2022 shows helicopters deployed on a road southeast of Chojniki, Belarus
This Maxar satellite image taken and released on February 25, 2022 shows helicopters deployed on a road southeast of Chojniki, Belarus – Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/AFP

But selectively broadcasting what satellites see could eventually lead to ethical concerns.

Maxar and others “inevitably capture footage of Ukrainian troop movements and defensive positions and that information is not made public,” Quilty said.

As for future conflicts, “it is absolutely possible to color the narrative based on the images made available,” he said.