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A massive iceberg breaks off from the Larsen-C ice shelf in Antarctica on July 12, 2017, as seen via an ESA satellite. Photo: ESA via Getty Images

Private companies have been launching constellations of Earth-observing satellites for years, but they've been focused on beaming back images taken using visible light. That's starting to change, however, as new firms enter what's currently a niche market: synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Details: SAR allows for data-gathering regardless of weather conditions, making it especially useful for monitoring the planet's disappearing ice sheets that are cloaked in darkness for half the year.

  • SAR technology first transmits microwave signals toward the Earth's surface and then receives the signals that are reflected, or backscattered, into space.
  • Such technology can sense ground movement and variables that other satellite sensors cannot.
  • Applications include monitoring oil spills, mapping forests and monitoring glaciers flowing into the sea.

The players: Three noteworthy companies in this area are Ursa Space Systems, Capella Space and ICEYE.

  • Ursa, which has raised nearly $13 million, analyzes and sells SAR data from existing satellite radar providers.
  • In the next 3 years, Capella Space, which has raised more than $50 million, is planning to launch its own constellation of 36 small satellites with SAR sensors to obtain hourly coverage of the entire planet, the company tells Axios.
    • It has already launched its first SAR satellite, Denali, with a second slated to go up later this year.
    • Their constellation will have sub-millimeter resolution, beating larger platforms like Sentinel, founder and CEO Payam Banazadeh tells Axios.
  • ICEYE, a Finnish firm, is also launching its own SAR constellation.

Between the lines: While primary business customers may be financial firms and governments, scientists could benefit immensely from new, highly capable SAR constellations.

  • This is particularly the case if the data is made freely available for research purposes.
  • "We are starting to have good conversations with the science community," Banazadeh tells Axios.

Stef Lhermitte, a researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, uses SAR imagery from ESA's Sentinel satellites to track Antarctic glaciers. He calls such data a "game changer."

  • Instead of one image a year giving indications of ice movement, "we now have one image every six days," Lhermitte tells Axios. "You start to see very short-term scale differences."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note the correct date — July 12, 2017 — that the Larsen C iceberg satellite image was taken.

Go deeper

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
20 mins ago - Sports

College football gone mad

Former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly walks in front of his players. Photo: David Madison/Getty Images

In the span of two days, the head coaches of two of the biggest college football programs in America have jumped ship, wooed by even greater challenges — and the almighty dollar.

Driving the news: Lincoln Riley is ditching Oklahoma for USC in a deal reportedly worth $110 million. LSU poached Brian Kelly from Notre Dame with a reported 10-year, $100 million contract.

Biden administration makes first move on data privacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration is launching its first big effort on privacy policy by looking at how data privacy issues affect civil rights.

Why it matters: An administration perspective on privacy policy could be key in developing a long-awaited national privacy law by putting the White House stamp on how to regulate privacy.

Axios Investigates

Exclusive: Airbnb hosts Xinjiang rentals on land owned by sanctioned group

Data: Axios research, Airbnb, Australia Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre; Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Airbnb has more than a dozen homes available for rent in China's Xinjiang region on land owned by an organization sanctioned by the U.S. government for complicity in genocide and forced labor, an Axios investigation has found.

Why it matters: The listings expose Airbnb to regulatory risk under U.S. law. They also land yet another American tech company in the crossfire between the U.S. and China.