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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

Dave Lawler, author of World
51 mins ago - World

Oxford and AstraZeneca's vaccine won't just go to rich countries

Waiting, in New Delhi. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

While the 95% efficacy rates for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are great news for the U.S. and Europe, Monday's announcement from Oxford and AstraZeneca may be far more significant for the rest of the world.

Why it matters: Oxford and AstraZeneca plan to distribute their vaccine at cost (around $3-4 per dose), and have already committed to providing over 1 billion doses to the developing world. The price tags are higher for the Pfizer ($20) and Moderna ($32-37) vaccines.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Key information about the effective COVID-19 vaccines — Oxford University's 90%-effective vaccine.
  2. Health: U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations keep breaking recordsWhy we're numb to 250,000 coronavirus deaths — Americans line up for testing ahead of Thanksgiving.
  3. Travel: Air travel's COVID-created future — Over 1 million U.S. travelers flew on Friday, despite calls to avoid holiday travel.
  4. World: England to impose stricter regional systemU.S. coronavirus hotspots far outpacing Europe's — Portugal to ban domestic travel for national holidays.
  5. Economy: The biggest pandemic labor market drags.
  6. Sports: Coronavirus precautions leave college basketball schedule in flux.

Biden transition names first Cabinet nominees

Biden with John Kerry. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday unveiled his nominations for top national security positions in his administration, tapping former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate czar and former deputy national security adviser Avril Haines as director of national intelligence.

Why it matters: Haines, if confirmed, would make history as the first woman to oversee the U.S. intelligence community. Biden also plans to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to become the first Latino secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.