War in Ukraine highlights the growing strategic importance of private satellite companies – especially in times of conflict

Satellites owned by private companies have played an unexpectedly important role in the war in Ukraine. For example, in early August 2022, images from private satellite company Planet Labs It showed A recent attack on a Russian military base in Crimea caused more damage than Russia has suggested in public reports. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky Damages are highlighted As proof of Ukraine’s war progress.

Soon after the war began, Ukraine requested the data from private satellite companies around the world. By the end of April, Ukraine was receiving images from American companies Just minutes After collecting the data.

My research focuses on this International Cooperation in Satellite Earth Observations, 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 make a decisive difference—informing both military planning as well as the public view of war. Based on the commercial satellite imagery of strategic value obtained during this war, I believe more nations will invest in private satellite companies.

Growth of the commercial satellite sector

Remote sensing satellites orbit the Earth collecting images, radio signals and many other types of data. This 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—particularly in the US, with the number of commercial Earth observation satellites growing. 11 in 2006 to over 500 in 2022About 350 of them belong to US companies.

Early commercial satellite remote-sensing companies worked closely with the military from the start, but many new entrants were not developed with national security applications in mind. Planet Labs, a US-based company that has played a major role in the conflict in Ukraine, Describes its customers such as “Agriculture, Government and Commercial Mapping” and it hopes to expand into “Insurance, Commodities and Finance”. Another US company, Spire, was originally focused on Monitoring weather and tracking commercial maritime activities. However, when the US Govt Set up a pilot program In 2016, many companies welcomed this new source of revenue to assess the value of their data.

The value of business data to national security

The US government has its own highly capable network of spy satellites, so partnerships with private companies can be surprising, but there are obvious reasons why these arrangements benefit the US government.

First is the simple fact that buying commercial data allows the government to see more places on Earth more frequently. In some cases, data is now available fast enough Enable real-time decision making on the battlefield.

Another reason relates to data sharing practices. Officials have to go through a complicated declassification process to share data from spy satellites. It also risks disclosing information about classified satellite capabilities. None of this concerns private companies’ data. This makes the aspect Easy sharing of satellite information for military Within the US government as well as with US allies. This benefit has been proven important factor For the war in Ukraine.

This photo was taken by the Planet Labs satellite on August 10, 2022, and shows aircraft damage from the Ukrainian airstrike that occurred just one day earlier, on August 9, 2022. Image courtesy of Planet Labs PBC

Use of satellite data in Ukraine

Commercial satellite imagery proved crucial to this war in two ways. First, it is a media tool that allows the public to watch the war unfold in unparalleled detail, and secondly, it is a source of vital information that helps Ukrainian military plan day-to-day operations.

Before the start of the war in February 2022, the US government was in place Actively promote Commercial satellite companies to share their images and raise awareness of Russian activities. Professional companies published image is showing Russian troops are massing near the Ukrainian borderA direct contradiction to Russia’s statements.

In early March 2022, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, asked eight commercial satellite companies to access their data. In his plea he said that this could be the first major war in which Commercial satellite imagery played an important role. Some companies obliged, and the Ukrainian government in the first two weeks of conflict Data coverage achieved Over 15 million square miles (40 million sq km) of battle area.

Significantly, the US government Increased purchase of images It can be given to Ukraine. The US government has also actively increased direct contact with each other US companies and Ukrainian intelligence analystsHelps to promote flow of information.

A recent example of the value of these images comes again from Planet Lab. Over the past few weeks, the company has been releasing images that paint a dangerous picture of the conflict Near Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. In recent days, UN officials have said that the situation “A real threat of nuclear disasterand allowed United Nations experts to visit the site.

Before the war, Ukrainian officials thought it would be better to spend money on “down-to-earth” security needs rather than expensive satellites. But now the authorities see it Satellite imagery as critical – both for battlefield awareness and for documenting atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces.

Looking forward

Some space experts call the war in Ukraine the first “Professional space warfare.” The conflict has clearly demonstrated the national security value of commercial satellite imagery, the potential of commercial satellite imagery Promoting transparency And not just the importance of national space power Space capabilities of allies.

I believe that the US commercial sector has had such a significant impact on military operations and public opinion will increase government investment in the private satellite sector globally. Leaders in Ukraine have intentions Invest in domestic satellite imaging capabilitiesAnd the US is Expanded his commercial purchases. This expansion may create new challenges for actors on both sides of the conflict if abundant satellite imagery becomes available in the future.

Some Earth-observation satellite companies hope the lessons learned will spread Beyond War and National Security. Ability to rapidly generate images and analysis can be used Monitor agricultural trends Or Provide insight into illegal mining operations.

The war in Ukraine could be a turning point for both global transparency and the commercial Earth-observation sector as a whole.

This article is republished from here conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing the ideas of educational experts. This was written by: Mariel Borowitz, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Mariel Borowitz receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the European Union. She has worked as a consultant for the Space Foundation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Institut Française des Relations Internationale.

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