Feb 18, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Earth-observing satellites bring intel to the masses

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Commercial satellite images have become ubiquitous in U.S. media as geopolitical tensions rise over a potential invasion of Ukraine.

Why it matters: The images are showcasing the abilities of Earth observing satellites that are often marketed as climate intelligence platforms, but in reality are also used for less advertised national security purposes.

  • Many satellite companies share their imagery with the little known National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an intelligence agency that has been expanding its connections with the private sector in recent years.
  • Other Defense Department agencies are also in the mix, such as the National Reconnaissance Office.

The big picture: The rapidly growing commercial space sector is giving rise to companies that can keep tabs on our planet in new ways, tracking everything from the acreage of a single wildfire to soil moisture and even the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide.

The intrigue: Companies like Maxar, which makes imagery available during and after major disasters, can find a reliable funding stream in the form of government contracts.

  • "The primary source of funding for nearly all of these, all of the commercial satellite imagery sector at the moment is the national security community," said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.
  • "Now the hope has always been that other sources of funding would materialize, but I think that's still a work in progress."

Driving the news: Commercial imagery that does not require declassification, thereby allowing for rapid releases, has been key to the Biden administration's effort to seize the narrative in the ongoing conflict.

  • For example, on Wednesday evening, the Biden administration accused Russia of failing to withdraw some forces as advertised, saying Russia was merely redeploying and even bolstering them.
  • These claims were backed up by imagery of Russian military activity that Maxar had sent to media outlets.
  • The pictures showed the recent construction of a bridge near the border between Belarus and Ukraine, and newly-arrived attack helicopters at various bases.
  • "It's great advertising, but also probably a good public service" on Maxar's part, Weeden said.

What they're saying: “Maxar’s imaging satellite constellation has been closely monitoring the build-up of Russian military forces along the Ukrainian border," said Dan Jablonsky, Maxar CEO, in a statement to Axios.

  • "This high-resolution, unclassified imagery has allowed many customers — including the U.S. Government and international allies — to have an accurate, up-to-date view of conditions on the ground."
  • "Through our News Bureau initiative, and of our own volition, Maxar has made much of this imagery available to news organizations to support global transparency and combat the spread of disinformation," he said.

Context: The companies that sell visible imagery as well as remote sensing using synthetic aperture radar — which can see through clouds — have already spawned a growing movement at think tanks, newsrooms and academia, known as open-source intelligence.

  • Researchers have used Planet's imagery extensively to monitor North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs, for example.
  • Now they are setting their sights on Ukraine's borders, sharing and analyzing images via social media.

The bottom line: The tensions in eastern Europe illustrate that the commercial satellite sector writ large has multiple use cases, from climate studies to national security applications.

Go deeper