Once-restricted tech is helping spot Russian troops, Chinese missile sites and raging wildfires

Todd Master has been spending a lot of time lately looking at the weather forecasts in Ukraine. He doesn’t need to meteorologically or militarily prepare — he lives safely in Santa Barbara, California. Instead, he wants to know whether satellites might be able to take good pictures of the besieged country that day. Those images can reveal details about the ongoing war with Russia that might otherwise be inaccessible to people thousands of miles away.

Satellite images of the Russian invasion revealed the miles-long military convoy near Kyiv, a new base in Crimea, bodies on the streets, a bombed-out theater. But the total number of public, high-resolution pictures is low given how long the war has been going on. “It’s not because they’re not sharing all of them,” said Master, chief operating officer at a satellite company called Umbra. “It’s because those are the only really great ones.”

The reason? “It’s pretty much cloudy every day,” he said.

Satellites equipped with regular cameras can’t, it turns out, snapshots of most of the planet most of the time: Around 70 percent of the globe is shrouded in clouds, and at any given time about half of the planet also happens to be dark. That’s where a newer kind of satellite comes in. Instead of using cameras to detect visible light, they rely on a technology called synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that beams microwaves at Earth. These microwaves shoot through clouds and don’t know the difference between day and night. They reflect off whatever they hit on the ground and bounce back up to detectors on the satellites.

The result is detailed maps that show the world as it is, and as it’s changing. That’s why, back in March, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation asked SAR companies to send real-time data his way.

Once the shrug-shouldered stepchild of the commercial satellite sector, the SAR industry is now having a moment: Both the cost of launch and the price of relevant technology have dropped during the 21st century, as both have become more capable. The intelligence community is buying data and analytics from private companies. The regulatory environment has loosened. Energy industrialists, climate researchers, farmers and disaster-response firms are all interested in what this spacey radar can do for them.

SAR satellites have helped discover a giant wind turbine farm likely powering Chinese missile silos, mapped flooding after a typhoon, tracked rogue ships and watched wildfire progression. They can stare through a hurricane and catch what North Korea is up to at 2 a.m. They can see whether a car has driven through snow or left ruts on a muddy road — in the dark, during a storm. “It’s like a whole different way of looking at the Earth,” said Alberto Valverde, of the Analytic Tradecraft Office at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “It’s almost like having a night-vision flashlight.”

Predictably, startups and defense giants alike are coming to cash in. Master’s firm, Umbra, is part of that gold rush. The company hopes that it can help spread access to radar snapshots, so that not just spies and soldiers but also scientists and insurance companies can see the shifting world in a new way.

And “shifting,” here, is key: SAR’s value lies in “coherent change detection.” That’s fancy language for being able to see differences in the landscape from day to day — essentially by comparing one image with another and seeing what changes. In addition to increasing the resolution you’d get from a single picture, SAR can also watch a building layer up. Watch an object disappear one day, or another appear the next. “I want to know immediately when the doomsday device gets rolled out,” joked Master.

The satellite industry has, for decades, launched cameras into space and beamed back pictures. Today, the sharpest spacecraft — big, expensive beasts made by companies like Maxar and Airbus — could pick out something the size of a mass-market paperback from space with a little extra data processing. And hordes of smaller, cheaper satellites collectively take less-HD pictures more frequently. A California firm called Planet images Earth’s entire landmass every day. It has started to offer higher-resolution shots, too, to compete with the big guns more directly.

But while those images make flashy headlines, and do paint a picture both valuable and literal, their use is limited: You can’t always, or even often, get a picture when and where you want. “If it’s cloudy, they can see the clouds,” said Payam Banazadeh, CEO and founder of Capella Space, which operates a suite of SAR satellites. “If it’s foggy, they see the fog. If it’s hazy or smoky, they see the haze and the smoke.”

All those environments are transparent, though, to SAR. “People can count on this imagery being taken at the time that they really need it,” said Banazadeh, “no matter what the condition is.”

Capella, in most ways, is ahead of Umbra. The company has seven satellites in orbit, compared with Umbra’s two. Umbra is working to get its first data out, while Capella is already selling its wares. And, sure, Umbra’s data will be sharper — with sub-25-centimeter resolution compared with Capella’s 50, like seeing a paperback book rather than a medium moving box. But there’s a lot to be said for having bytes already on the ground.

Both companies have competition big and small, here and abroad. Big aerospace and defense companies like Airbus, L3Harris, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon all have SAR arms. So do smaller firms like Finland’s Iceye, and Florida’s PredaSAR.

That is, or at least will be, a lot of data to deal with. And that’s where companies like New York’s Ursa come in. Ursa helps people buy radar images and develops software to make sense of the strange data. Typically, someone comes to them with a problem — How do we determine where a landslide slid? for example — and they develop digital tools that dig into SAR data for the answer.

That’s not easy or intuitive. Our eyes don’t see in microwaves, and so evolution didn’t configure our brains to interpret their echoes. “The analysis of the data was kind of relegated to very sophisticated Ph.D.s,” said Adam Maher, Ursa’s CEO and founder. Or people within government who had been working with SAR satellites, sometimes of a classified sort, for decades.

The spies loosen their grip

SAR isn’t a magical new technology. It goes back to 1951, when Carl Wiley, an engineer who worked for Goodyear Aircraft Company, later acquired by Lockheed Martin, found a way to shrink the giant World War II-era radar antennas and yet get the same sharpness in the image.

This “synthetic aperture radar” concept — soon also discovered by academics at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois — ended up on the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the first stealth aircraft. SAR stayed largely in the air, not above the atmosphere, for a while.

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The first civilian SAR satellite, called SeaSat, was launched in 1978. But it was lonely up there, or so it seemed. “The United States did indeed have its own radar satellites,” said Master. “We just didn’t talk about it.” These SAR satellites were part of classified programs, of the sort Master used to work on.

Master occasionally uses words like “dank” to describe his company and its work (“We’ve chosen to adopt it as our own unique word for ‘cool,’” he said) and now sports a beard and lives civilian life seaside. But he once was a cleaner-cut part of the Air Force and managed space programs for DARPA, the Defense Department’s risky R&D arm.

Federal regulations once effectively kept private American companies, like the one that now employs Master, from creating their own SAR systems. The U.S. government thought the technology too revelatory of terrestrial secrets, with its all-seeing microwave eyes, and wanted to keep what its own hush-hush SAR satellites might know quiet.

That’s not quite how space works, though. Companies in other countries were not bound by such chains. “Everywhere else in the world, you had a wide proliferation of these radar satellites, except for the United States,” said Gabe Dominocielo, Umbra’s chief strategy officer and co-founder.

Effectively banning SAR in the U.S. was like confessing a crush to three friends, only telling one not to talk about it and expecting it to stay hidden. After all, anyone could buy that foreign data — including the U.S. government. And it did. “The United States cannot control what companies in other countries are allowed to do,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law.

The regulations nevertheless kept a U.S. SAR industry from starting up, while other countries (Canada, Italy, Germany) were gaining antenna expertise. Things started to change in 2009 when the U.S. issued a limited commercial SAR license. But things didn’t really start to turn around until 2020 when the Commerce Department issued a rule codifying licensing reforms. That allowed U.S. companies to sell SAR data as long as it was not of better quality than that of foreign companies. That shift signaled a recognition, said Gabrynowicz, that limiting U.S. capabilities would not necessarily limit the data available to adversaries. Thus, hobbling technology didn’t lead to more national security.

But the shift wasn’t necessarily driven from inside D.C.: U.S. companies who wanted to make SAR satellites pushed for change. “It’s not that policy is driving commercial SAR investments or capabilities,” said Josef Koller of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corporation. “It’s the other way around.”

As the regulations began to change, so did the global dynamics. “We’ve sat down in the last like five years and built the next generation of radar satellites,” said Dominocielo, who co-founded a for-profit lawyer-referral firm before forming Umbra, “which are less expensive and higher quality than anywhere else in the world.”

Those commercial U.S. satellites are still strapped by regulation: Companies like Umbra and Capella can only release imagery as good as what other countries sell in the open. “My goal is to try to stop that from happening,” said Master, to make sure the U.S. is allowed to at least try to pull ahead, rather than staying yoked neck-and-neck.

Countering disinformation

It turns out, though, that having commercial SAR data is also good for the very people who like to keep SAR data secret. Take the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, a space-centric spy agency that, in 2020, did a survey of private SAR capabilities and identified several “unclassified types of collection needs.” That’s according to Jared Newton, who serves as a technical executive for its commercial and business operations group.

Spies being spies, Newton is cagey about the details of those use cases, generalizing first to “observing different classes of objects at different facilities.” He goes on to say that they’ve done demos counting cars in parking lots, or the number of aircraft at a jet-resting spot.

After that, the agency and National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s surveillance satellites, awarded “study contracts” to a few companies to buy their data, play around with it and judge its quality. Those went to both Capella and Umbra, along with PredaSAR and the American arms of Airbus and Iceye. NGA also has contracts with Ursa and BlackSky, among others, for SAR analysis.

One reason to buy from these private companies — even if you perhaps have the best secret SAR satellites in the world — is that you can actually pass their goods around. “The key differentiator really is just, frankly, the shareability of the information,” said Newton. You can send them to allies and to the public.

Koller sees in this show-and-tell the ability to change the information landscape in a detectable way: Publish images that support your narrative, or ones that contradict others’ narratives, or their disinformation. This happened when, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that bodies in Bucha, Ukraine, streets were staged after the Russians left: Satellite images taken almost two weeks before their departure, by contrast, showed bodies already there.

From troop movements to walrus migrations

Troop amassment, tank movement and bomb damage are obviously of prime interest to defense types. But people outside the military-industrial complex are also interested in using SAR to measure sea ice, detect oil spills, evaluate collapsed mines, make flood maps, track glacier variations, check out wind patterns, watch erosion, cultivate knowledge of vegetation, predict landslides and presage volcanic activity. Ursa’s website hosts a list of 26 use cases, from A to Z — A being “auto manufacturing trends” and Z being the state of the oil field in Zawiya, Libya.

Those unclassified, often feel-good examples are the ones companies typically want to talk about — and the ones they claim they’re interested in amassing. They want more customers who aren’t named “Uncle Sam.” But even traditional satellite portrait takers struggle with that. And making the case that a farmer or city planner needs your data is even harder when you have to explain an acronym. “It’s much easier to do if you can show them a picture,” said Koller.

It’s also much easier if your space shots don’t break ground-based banks. The cost of a single satellite image can sometimes edge up against $10,000. “No one’s gonna buy that except for a government,” said Dominocielo. Specifically: the U.S. government. Cut that in half, and maybe other governments look. At $1,000, tycoons in, say, the energy sector take notice. But you have to go below that to reliably get the little guy. “I want to get as close to free as possible,” said Dominocielo, “while still being able to eat.”

By making satellites smaller and cheaper, companies like Umbra and Capella can sell their data for less — just as getting ingredients for less money lets you price cookies low.

Both companies like to use homey analogies for the diminution of their satellites. They each fold up the antennas before launch, and those antennas then unfurl themselves once in orbit. Before takeoff, Umbra’s is “dorm fridge-sized”; Capella’s is like a “backpack.” When deployed, they are around the same size — 100 square feet — or, as Umbra puts it, “larger than an SUV.” Umbra’s satellites cost less than $5 million to build, compared with costs up to $500 million for a traditional large one.

Still, their data isn’t yet for everyone. Umbra’s highest-quality images, for example, will go for around $3,000 at the outset (“with an immediate goal of trying to drive that downwards rather than upwards,” Master promises, a direction some satellite companies go). Its lower-quality images with 0.5-meter resolution (about 1.6 feet) will initially cost around $750. But they do come with a Creative Commons license, which is rare. Usually, said Dominocielo, “if you want to share that image with anyone else, you need to get permission.”

Those accessible parts of Umbra’s strategy come courtesy, in part, of a controversial industry figure named Joe Morrison. Morrison writes a newsletter called “A Closer Look” and regularly rails about satellite imagery’s high prices and opaque purchasing protocols. “He wrote a blog post talking about how satellite providers are the absolute worst,” said Dominocielo. “And everything they do is wrong. They don’t care about their customers. They only prioritize the government.”

After Dominocielo read the article, he called Morrison — who at the time had a job at a company called Azavea, which buys and analyzes satellite shots for organizations like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the World Bank — and offered him a job. “Executives are like, this guy’s like an asshole, right?” Dominocielo, an executive, said, referring to outsiders.

“I’d much rather trust the guy who buys the imagery,” Dominocielo continued, “than some suit who thinks selling an image for $10,000 is a good idea.”

But despite dreams of diversification, Master said 50 percent of the overall SAR market is nevertheless the U.S. government, and 25 percent is allied foreign governments. The democratization is only in the other 25 percent — with customers who might, for example, want to monitor oil pipelines across borders. “You can’t send a guy with a Jeep and a clipboard,” Dominocielo said. Then there are the weird one-offs, like the research group that wants to use the radar to track migrating walruses.

The SAR industry is really just starting in the U.S. Depending on who you ask, it’s anywhere from five to 10 years behind the cloud-beleaguered, picture-taking space industry.

But the demand for said data is outstripping the amount available — on the government-crisis side if not the walrus-guy side. “‘We need to have an image of Ukraine every 30 minutes,’” said Dominocielo, mimicking the government, which is interested in buying more shots from high-demand areas than it’s physically possible to take, given the number of radar spacecraft up there, even if the feds bought every single SAR image. “The data is dribbling out,” said Master. “It’s just starting.”