Satellite imagery

Satellite imagery | A coming of age for commercial imagery

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.”