Science

The war in Ukraine highlights the growing strategic importance of private satellite companies, especially in times of conflict.

Private companies have launched dozens of satellites into orbit in recent years to take images, such as the two small boxes in the middle of the photo. (Image credit: NASA/Steve Jurvetson, CC BY-NC)

This article was originally published in The Conversation. (will open in a new tab) The publication published an article in Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights on Space.com.

Mariel Borowitz (will open in a new tab)Associate Professor of International Relations, Georgia Institute of Technology

Satellites owned by private companies have played an unexpectedly important role in the war in Ukraine. For example, in early August 2022, images from the private satellite company Planet Labs showed that (will open in a new tab) the recent attack on a Russian military base in Crimea has caused more damage than Russia has assumed in public reports. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky noted the losses (will open in a new tab) as evidence of Ukraine’s success in the war.

Shortly after the start of the war, Ukraine requested data (will open in a new tab) from private satellite companies around the world. By the end of April, Ukraine was receiving images from US companies in minutes. (will open in a new tab) after data collection.

My research focuses on international cooperation in Earth observation satellites. (will open in a new tab)including the role of the private sector. While experts have long known that satellite imagery is useful in times of conflict, the war in Ukraine has shown that commercial satellite data can be critical in informing both military planning and public opinion about the war. Based on the strategic value of commercial satellite imagery during this war, I believe that more countries will invest in private satellite companies.

(Image credit: author)

Growth of the commercial satellite sector

Remote sensing satellites circle the Earth, collecting images, radio signals, and many other types of data. The technology was originally developed by governments for military intelligence, weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. But over the past two decades, commercial activity in this area has grown rapidly, especially in the US. The number of commercial Earth observation satellites has increased from 11 in 2006 to over 500 in 2022. (will open in a new tab)about 350 of which are owned by US companies.

The first commercial satellite remote sensing companies worked closely with the military from the start, but many of the new entrants were not designed with national security in mind. Planet Labs, an American company that played a big role in the Ukrainian conflict, describes its clients (will open in a new tab) as in “agriculture, government, and commercial mapping” and hopes to expand into “insurance, merchandise, and finance.” Spire, another American company, originally focused on weather monitoring and tracking commercial maritime activity. (will open in a new tab). However, when the US government launched pilot programs (will open in a new tab) in 2016, in order to assess the value of these companies’ data, many companies welcomed this new source of income.

Importance of commercial data for national security

The US government has its own powerful network of spy satellites, so partnerships with private companies may come as a surprise, but there are clear reasons why the US government benefits from these arrangements.

First, it’s the simple fact that buying commercial data allows the government to see more places on Earth more often. In some cases, data is now available quickly enough to allow real-time decision making. (will open in a new tab) on the battlefield.

The second reason has to do with data exchange practices. Sharing data from spy satellites requires officials to go through a complex declassification process. It could also lead to the disclosure of classified satellite capabilities. Neither of these apply to private company data. This aspect makes it easier for the military to exchange satellite information. (will open in a new tab) within the US government, as well as with US allies. This advantage proved to be a key factor (will open in a new tab) for the war in Ukraine.

This photo was taken by Planet Labs on August 2nd. August 10, 2022, and shows aircraft damage from a Ukrainian attack that took place just the day before, on August 8. 9, 2022. (Image credit: Planet Labs PBC)

Use of satellite data in Ukraine

Commercial satellite imagery proved critical to this war for two reasons. Firstly, it is a media tool that allows the public to watch the course of the war in incredible detail, and secondly, it is a source of important information that helps the Ukrainian military plan daily operations.

Even before the start of the war in February 2022, the US government actively encouraged (will open in a new tab) commercial satellite companies to share their images and raise awareness of Russia’s activities. Commercial companies released images (will open in a new tab) showing Russian troops amassing near the border with Ukraine (will open in a new tab)which directly contradicts the statements of Russia.

In early March 2022, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked eight commercial satellite companies for access to their data. In his request, he said that this could be the first major war in which commercial satellite imagery played a significant role. (will open in a new tab). Some companies agreed, and during the first two weeks of the conflict, the Ukrainian government received data covering (will open in a new tab) over 15 million square miles (40 million square kilometers) of war zone.

The US government has significantly increased image purchases (will open in a new tab) which can be provided to Ukraine. The US government has also been active in forging direct links between US companies and Ukrainian intelligence analysts. (will open in a new tab)helping to promote the flow of information.

A recent example of the value of these images again comes from Planet Labs. Over the past few weeks, the company has been publishing images showing that the conflict is dangerously approaching the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. (will open in a new tab). In recent days, UN officials have said the situation poses “a very real risk of a nuclear holocaust.” (will open in a new tab)and insisted that UN experts be allowed to visit the site.

To learn more

Before the war, Ukrainian officials thought the money was better spent on “mundane” security needs than on expensive satellites. But now these officials consider the satellite imagery critical. (will open in a new tab) – both to inform about the battlefield and to document atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces.

Look forward to

Some space experts have called the war in Ukraine the first “commercial space war.” (will open in a new tab).” The conflict clearly demonstrated the national security value of commercial satellite imagery, the ability of commercial satellite imagery to promote transparency (will open in a new tab) and the importance of not only national space power, but also the space capabilities of allies (will open in a new tab).

I believe that the fact that the US commercial sector has had such a significant impact on military operations and public opinion will lead to increased public investment in the private satellite sector around the world. Ukrainian leaders intend to invest in domestic satellite imagery capabilities (will open in a new tab)and the US expanded its commercial purchases (will open in a new tab). This expansion could create new problems if the parties to the conflict on both sides have access to a large number of satellite images in the future.

Some Earth observation satellite companies have expressed hope that the lessons learned will go beyond war and national security. (will open in a new tab). The ability to quickly generate images and analyzes can be used to track trends in agriculture. (will open in a new tab) or provide information about illegal mining operations (will open in a new tab).

The war in Ukraine could very well prove to be a key turning point both for global transparency of the conflict and for the commercial Earth observation sector as a whole.

This article is republished from The Conversation (will open in a new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read original article (will open in a new tab).

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