The European Space Agency (ESA) has initiated a demonstration project in collaboration with Marple, a German technology firm, to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite data for certifying organic cotton farms in India and preventing fraud. The project aims to train Marple’s software to analyze imagery from ESA’s Sentinel-2 satellites, which orbit the Earth in a polar trajectory, to identify cotton fields across India and classify them based on their cultivation method.

Marple previously tested this software in Uzbekistan, achieving a 98% accuracy in distinguishing between organic and conventional cotton. Now, the project will be conducted in partnership with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), a non-profit organization that sets a voluntary global standard for the textile industry.

The demonstration in India is particularly important for enhancing the accuracy of the software, as the country has diverse climatic conditions, a prevalence of small fields, and intercropping practices that can make distinguishing organic cotton more challenging. The software leverages a range of sensors to collect data on vegetation, water, soil, and other indices such as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which measures the health and density of vegetation.

The project aims to demonstrate how AI and satellite data can streamline the certification process for organic cotton farms, ensuring the authenticity of organic produce and combating fraud in the industry.

The initial outcomes from the project in India are anticipated to be available by the end of the year, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) intends to utilize these results to enhance yield estimations. The project aims to identify cotton fields with traditional and environmentally friendly farming practices, including smaller farms that may operate without organic certification. If fields certified as organic are found to have failed to meet the required criteria, they will be flagged for investigation prior to harvesting their cotton.

One of the challenges in the organic sector is the lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which fraudulent practices have impacted the industry. Additionally, there is currently no reliable data source regarding the number of organic cotton farms in India, making it difficult to accurately assess the quantity of organic cotton being cultivated and its origins.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is co-financing the project in India through its Business Applications and Space Solutions (BASS) program in collaboration with GOTS. They have allocated approximately 500,000 euros ($535,000) to support the demonstration, which utilizes satellite data and artificial intelligence to verify organic cotton farms and address fraud within the industry.

The U.S. Space Force has received the 10th and final GPS 3 satellite manufactured by Lockheed Martin under a contract dating back to 2008. Out of the 10 satellites produced, six have already been launched, while the remaining four are stored at a Lockheed Martin facility in Waterton, Colorado, awaiting future launch opportunities.

On February 16, the Space Systems Command announced that it had declared the 10th satellite “available for launch.” GPS 3 satellites are an upgraded version of the U.S. military’s Global Positioning System, providing enhanced positioning, navigation, and timing signals. They offer improved protection against jamming attacks for military users and feature an advanced L1C signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites, benefiting civilian users.

Scott Thomas, the GPS 3 program manager at the Space Systems Command, highlighted the significance of completing the 10th satellite, emphasizing its role in modernizing the GPS system. He acknowledged the program’s importance in meeting U.S. national security needs for both military personnel and the billions of users worldwide who rely on GPS services.

The GPS 3 program faced challenges during its production. Lockheed Martin won the competition against Boeing in 2008, but later encountered technical issues with the primary payload, causing production delays. Despite these setbacks, the delivery of the final GPS 3 satellite marks a notable milestone in the ongoing modernization of GPS technology.

Indeed, the GPS 3 satellite program experienced delays in its launch schedule, with the first satellite launching in 2018 instead of the originally projected 2014. Subsequent launches followed in 2019, 2020, 2021, and most recently last month. The launches were conducted using SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicles for five satellites, while the sixth satellite was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

As for the seventh GPS 3 satellite, no specific launch date has been announced yet. It is assigned to ULA’s upcoming Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is expected to replace the Atlas 5 in future launches.

Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the GPS 3 program, is currently working on an advanced version called GPS 3F. The company’s dominant role in the program led its only competitor, Boeing, to withdraw from the competition to build GPS 3F satellites.

In 2018, Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract worth $7.2 billion for the production of up to 22 GPS 3F satellites. As of now, ten satellites have been ordered under this contract.

Satellite imagery can help the public be in the loop better than previously for different world events. On the day before the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, Jeffrey Lewis, a well-known figure on social media under the handle @ArmsControlWonk, tweeted that someone was on the move. He had been monitoring Russian movements for days leading up to the invasion using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite data from Capella Space, a commercial company.

In the tweet, he included a SAR image of a Russian armored unit that had recently arrived in Belgorod, near the Ukraine border. Despite Lewis believing that the invasion was imminent, many skeptics were still unconvinced by the commercially available satellite image.

Lewis expressed his amazement at the intelligence now available to the public. He noted that this is the first war where people can follow updates on social media, whereas in the past, most of the satellite images about world events came from government sources.

Lewis notes that no other conflict has had the same immersive quality as the current conflict in Ukraine, largely due to the abundance of social media information, which often includes satellite imagery. As a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, Lewis is known for pioneering the use of open-source intelligence for independent reporting on issues such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the aftermath of natural disasters. On the day before the invasion, Lewis used publicly available data, such as a video posted on TikTok and Google Maps, to corroborate the SAR image of the Russian armored unit.

According to Lewis, some of his colleagues thought it was crazy to fuse the data from social media and satellite images. Similarly, the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, has used satellite imagery and other open-source intelligence to track events in Ukraine, and commercial imagery has been instrumental for their work. George Barros, a geospatial intelligence analyst at ISW, believes that these new technologies can be leveraged to provide honest, timely, and accurate assessments to inform the public.

“There’s been an explosion in the kinds of data that people can collect commercially, which is fantastic and amazing,” Barros says.

The U.S. government, to be sure, helped to open the spigot of commercial imagery because it knew an invasion was about to happen but could not share its own classified satellite images with allies or news media.

Lewis credits the Biden administration for the unprecedented release of commercial imagery and for ensuring the images were “annotated and pointing to things that analysts like me could go check.”

While electro-optical images provided by Maxar, Planet, BlackSky and others are really powerful and visually appealing, Lewis considers SAR the “breakout technological capability of this particular war.” In Ukraine, he says, “when you take optical images, what you frequently get is a picture of clouds.”

Whether it’s radar, optical or other forms of satellite-based data, he says, there is still a lot of potential in commercial imagery that hasn’t yet been realized. In conversations with colleagues, “I point out to them all the time that satellite imagery would solve a ton of problems they have, but they’re just intimidated by it.”

Radar imagery is especially challenging because it’s not a picture that can be understood intuitively, he says. Making sense of SAR data requires special software tools and an investment in trained analysts, “so that’s always been a little bit of a barrier.”

Although there’s still more work to be done in this area, the geospatial intelligence community will view the Ukraine war as a pivotal moment in the use of information from space to inform and to shape world events, says Lewis. “We’re entering an era in which it’s just very hard to keep a lot of activities secret.”

Viasat is seeking to create hybrid narrowband direct-to-smartphone services using satellites in geostationary and non-geostationary orbits according to its CEO, Mark Dankberg, who spoke at the SmallSat Symposium in California on Feb. 8.

Viasat is open to partnering with low Earth orbit companies, including rival SpaceX. The acquisition of Inmarsat is still awaiting regulatory approval, and Viasat is focusing on improving payload integration to save space by looking at standardized cubesat-type form factors to allow new entrants into these systems.

Advances in technology are making it easier to communicate from orbit without large antennas or specialized phones, and direct-to-smartphone capabilities are becoming increasingly compelling. However, Viasat is aware of the potential negative impact of having any cell phone or smartwatch in the world connect directly to a space system, which is not consistent with the self-interest of many nations.

As direct-to-smartphone efforts pick up, it is likely to have knock-on effects across the rest of the space industry, including putting more mass into orbit, increasing the threat of collisions that could threaten the viability of space operations for all operators.

Dankberg told the SmallSat Symposium that while Viasat made its multi-billion dollar offer for Inmarsat because of its international broadband presence, its direct-to-smartphone narrowband capabilities are increasingly compelling.

He said “one of the biggest potential markets is direct-to-device,” which is “going to have a big influence, both positive and negative when it comes to … the self-interest of nations.”

Advances in technology and telecom protocol standardization are making it easier to communicate to and from orbit without large antennas or specialized phones. 

“It’s possible to control that,” Dankberg said, “but when any cell phone in the world, or smartwatch … within your borders can connect to a space system directly, that is not consistent with the self-interest of quite a few nations in the world.”

Small LEO satellites have been getting larger to improve their capabilities as launch economics improve, Dankberg noted.

He pointed to how SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites have increased from about 250 kilograms to the 2,000-kilogram range to add new capabilities, such as direct-to-smartphone services, into its second-generation broadband constellation.

Viasat believes “you do not need very large satellites to accomplish missions in space,” Dankberg said, and is focusing on improving payload integration to save space.

“We’re looking at standardized cubesat-type form factors that we think we can buy that will create a vibrant ecosystem,” he added, “to allow many new entrants into these into these systems.”

Viasat is still waiting on regulatory approvals from the United Kingdom and European to buy Inmarsat after announcing the deal in November 2021.

The statuary deadline for the U.K.’s competition watchdog to decide on the deal is March 30, Raymond James analyst Ric Prentiss said in a recent investor note, and “then the last remaining hurdle would be the European Commission which could potentially elongate the timeline.”

Viasat, which recently completed the $2 billion sale of its tactical data communications business, reported $651 million in revenue from continuing operations in the three months to the end of December, up 4% year-on-year.

Adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, declined 15% to $139 million. 

The operator also disclosed an extra few weeks of delays for its debut next-generation ViaSat-3 satellite, designed to add significant amounts of capacity over the Americas, which is now slated for a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in the week of April 8.

The second ViaSat-3, covering Europe, Middle East, and Africa, is counting down to a September launch on one of United Launch Alliance’s last Atlas launches.