Iceye launched its first commercial microsatellite in January. This is an image of Silicon Valley. Credit: Iceye

TAMPA, Florida — Iceye, the Finnish company flying a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) microsatellite, forged an alliance April 24 at the 2018 GEOINT Symposium with Ursa Space Systems, a firm that offers economic insights from geospatial data.

“We signed an agreement with Ursa for them to have full access to our X1 data,” said Rafal Modrzewski, CEO and co-founder of Iceye. “They will be able to utilize the X1 archive as well as task the satellite. We will work in close cooperation to improve the system so the satellites and the way we operate them reflects what the customers need.”

Iceye launched X1, its first SAR micro satellite, in January on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The company plans to launch two more satellites this year, X2 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and X3 on a Rocket Labs Electron rocket, Modrzewski told SpaceNews. 

Modrzewski and Adam Maher, Ursa co-founder and president, have planned this partnership ever since Ursa pivoted years ago from its plan to build and operate SAR satellites to becoming a data analytics company.

“It’s good if different companies are focused on different parts of the market, Modrzewski said.

Iceye is focused on building its initial constellation of 18 SAR microsatellites. Ursa is a rapidly growing analytics services company. Since December, Ursa’s staff has more than tripled from ten to 35 employees to meet demand from a variety of customers including banks, commodity traders, oil and gas companies and hedge funds.

One of the new employees is Melanie Corcoran, Ursa’s new chief technology officer, who previously ran Analytic Fusions, a geospatial data analytics company. Corcoran attributes Ursa’s swift expansion to the accuracy and reliability of its products. To measure oil in storage tanks, for example, Ursa uses a “scientifically validated and verified method,” Corcoran said. “We combine that with other datasets to provide the context.”

With $7 million from a Series A financing round completed in October, Ursa is investing in infrastructure to move into new markets and produce data products more quickly with the same or improved accuracy, Corcoran said. “My division is bringing onboard the rigorous components needed for the technical evaluation of increasing datasets and increasing frequency of measurements to determine whether they will help the firm offer better analysis for customers,” she added.

In addition to Iceye, Ursa has forged relationships with every commercial satellite radar vendor including Maxar Technologies, Italy’s e-Geos, Airbus Defence and Space, Japan Space Imaging and SI Imaging Services of Korea, Maher said.

“We’ve moved from thinking about ourselves as a resource company to thinking about building the radar community,” Maher said. “As a community we can help educate the markets to use this data.”

Ursa also is developing a platform to ingest different radar datasets, Maher said.

If a technical issue occurs with one SAR satellite, Ursa can switch to a different data provider, Corcoran said. “We have redundancy built into our product and our tasking,” she added.

Ursa’s ultimate goal it to develop tools that answer questions for customers in ways that makes sense to them. “We hire economists, artists, people from Wall Street because if you can’t effectively tell the story it doesn’t work,” Maher said.

Ursa is developing a platform to enable future users to ask questions that it will answer by querying the different databases. “In the future the portal will be a lot more interactive,” Corcoran said. “I want people to use SAR like they use location-based services. It may help them understand the price of oil, but they never had to even think it came from a SAR image. If we are doing our jobs right, it should be like magic to them.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...