The war in Ukraine has shown the power of commercial satellites to deliver crucial intelligence to the world.
The satellite imagery industry is trying to build on that momentum and respond to new demands for more sophisticated space-based intelligence, said Tony Frazier, executive vice president of the satellite imaging company Maxar Technologies.
Maxar and others worked with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to make commercial satellite images widely available to Ukraine and coalition allies.
Beyond the demand for traditional imagery, there are now burgeoning needs for intelligence that augments optical images with data from other sources such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can see at night and through clouds, and radio-frequency (RF) mapping, a signals-tracking technology commonly used to find illegal fishing vessels at sea and in Ukraine helped detect sources of hostile electronic jamming.
Throughout the conflict, Maxar used an analytics platform it developed for NGA to integrate its own high-resolution imagery with data from commercial optical, RF and SAR satellites that circle the Earth multiple times a day to detect change.
That fusion of data was the magic sauce that allowed the U.S. and its allies not just to watch the buildup of Russian troops and equipment on Ukraine’s border, but also to identify sources of electronic interference and signals-based intelligence efforts. Commercial data also has been critical to assessing battle damage and tracking Russian forces.
Such data was around long before the war, but it had never been merged and exploited this way, Frazier said. “The Ukraine conflict was a forcing function for that,” he added. And due to the urgency of the situation, the U.S. government moved quickly to enlist providers and get everyone working together.
Once U.S. allies became aware of the wealth of intelligence available from commercial sources, “they asked for more of it,” Frazier said. “And by having the contracts in place, the U.S. government was able to quickly act on that demand to deliver more optical, more SAR, more RF to support the mission.”
Commercial geospatial intelligence as a national security tool is not a passing trend but the new reality. “We’re not going back,” Frazier said. “There’s a growing appetite for not just collection but for what insights you can derive from those sources and how they can be made available to partners.”
In this next phase of geospatial intelligence, companies are investing in new capabilities to capture market share.
Maxar in February announced a deal with SAR startup Umbra to get dedicated access to the company’s radar imaging constellation. Maxar also recently acquired radio-frequency mapping startup Aurora Insight.
“RF is something that we’re really excited about,” Frazier said, because it enhances the utility of optical and SAR satellites.
In an integrated geoint architecture, an RF sensor that finds a potential object of interest cues an optical or SAR imaging satellite to zero in for further analysis.
BlackSky and Planet, two other companies working with NGA to support Ukraine, operate optical imaging satellites and are expanding into hyperspectral, which captures light from hundreds of wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum. They were among six firms that recently signed agreements with the National Reconnaissance Office to explore national security applications of this technology.
David Gauthier, former director of NGA’s commercial and business operations, said the NRO’s agreements are a major boost for the industry because they signal a demand that will help companies attract private investment.
The Pentagon for decades has used hyperspectral sensors on aircraft to detect explosives on the battlefield but is less experienced at using hyperspectral data from space. The NRO is making these agreements with suppliers in anticipation of a military need, Gauthier said. DoD is unlikely to want to send airplanes into hostile environments and would rather rely on satellites.
Gauthier, now a consultant in the private sector, was running NGA’s commercial operations when the invasion of Ukraine started, and helped orchestrate partnerships with the private sector.
Prior to the war, many in the intelligence community questioned the value of commercial imagery, Gauthier said, but the skepticism was quickly set aside.
“What happened a year ago was the spark that ignited some passion in the government to bring more commercial capabilities into mission use,” he said.
“Before that, there was a complacency,” Gauthier recalled. “We thought we would slowly bring commercial imagery into operations over time. And then Russia invaded Ukraine.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.