Big Brother is already here, but he’s just a little brother

Big Brother is already here, but he's just a little brother

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In mid-December, a San Francisco startup took Earth observation from space to a whole new level: Capella Space unveiled its system, which has been in operation since August, with a pair of black-and-white images that can produce sharper images than ever at night or through clouds. from the surface of the Earth. What’s more, even the walls of smaller buildings can see through the radio-scanning satellite, which could soon even become the planet’s security camera.

Systems like the Capella Space are almost exclusively available to government agencies, but in mid-December the company announced that in addition to the images presented, a fairly rigorous screening and, of course, for a significant amount of money, even private individuals could view the Capella-2 satellite. captured images, and you can even mark a destination yourself if you haven’t taken a picture of the area you want. And for their money, they get a pretty good resolution, as the Capella-2 maps an area of ​​50×50 cm in each pixel, taking into account legal restrictions.

They solved the matter out of pillars

Similar systems were mostly available to government agencies because of their size, complexity, and development cost, which could only be afforded by public purses. Capella, on the other hand, developed its system from a small scale on a space scale. As President and CEO Payam Banazadeh points out:

“For a government to get to where we are, they would have had to commission serious studies that would have probably decided that the whole project wasn’t worth it. We got it all out of what they would have done feasibility studies for. ”

Banazadeh, who previously worked as an engineer for Jet Propulsion Lab, one of NASA’s space centers, is not a poetic exaggeration anyway. In 2007, the U.S. government, fearing a sudden rift of enemy missiles and urging the development of a space radar system, reached somewhere between $ 27 billion and $ 94 billion to implement it. Capella needed roughly $ 84 million in investor money to launch the second satellite – by the time of the mid-December announcement, roughly $ 200 million had already been raised, but based on the results presented, chances are they’re already making a lot more money.

Technology is not new

Capella-2, as its name suggests, is the company’s second completed satellite. The first was released back in 2018, it was able to display 1×1 meter portions per pixel, so its resolution was four times worse. Since then, they have made rapid progress by redesigning the antenna that receives radio signals and making some improvements.

By the way, the satellite is a synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, which has been in use at NASA since the 1970s, including the 1989 Magellan spacecraft, which took pictures of Venus.

Capella-2, which travels at a speed of 7.5 km per second in space, sends 9.65 GHz radio waves to Earth, allowing it to see through even the densest clouds, and because it is a radio wave, it doesn’t matter if the satellite is day or night. , can create the same images in the same way. Roughly the way dolphins and bats assess their environment using echolocation.

“Clouds, or any kind of fog, mist and smoke, can be considered essentially completely transparent at this frequency. We don’t have to deal with them at all, nor do we have to deal with them at night or during the day. ”

– says Banazadeh, who gives a simple example of why this is not the future with satellites with optical sensors: 50% of the Earth is always at night, roughly half of the daytime is covered by clouds on average, so a satellite with a camera there is a good chance that only a quarter of the Earth can be seen one way or another. But it must also be taken into account that the clouds are constantly moving, as is the dark-light boundary line.


That alone could have been enough to draw the attention of industry players to their ability to capture a sharp image of a specific area at any time, but Capella went further with a resolution of 50×50 centimeters per pixel. Their goal is for the next generation of their satellites to show a resolution of 25×25 centimeters per pixel.

Under current U.S. law, any company can only sell satellite images better than 50×50 centimeters to government agencies, so they haven’t developed an even better resolution so far, but they’re confident that working with government agencies will soon loosen regulation and the free market. they may sell such images. True, they have already significantly outperformed most satellites available in a similar area, as they show 5×5 meters per pixel.

In addition to the continuous observation capability and high resolution, there is another fairly large weapon in favor of the Capella system:

are able to see buildings with lighter structures, such as metal-structured aircraft hangars, by satellite.

Although it was common since the original announcement that radar waves penetrated even more serious buildings, Capella quickly indicated that nothing could be seen from the interior structure through walls made of concrete or brick, for example.

A tragedy inspired the whole thing

Watching the disaster on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Banazadeh came to the decision that better systems were needed to help people and the authorities work. “Governments around the world have sent ships to search for the missing plane as time goes on. I remember watching TV and thinking that the human race had failed if a machine of this size with 280 people on board could disappear without any idea where and why it had disappeared or what had happened. ” (227 passengers and 12 crew were lost in the 2014 disaster, and neither they nor the plane have been found to date.)

But how will a radar satellite be able to find a missing plane, say?

So that when Capella’s system becomes complete and the number of satellites launched reaches thirty-six – this is expected to be relatively soon after 6 more satellites are added to the network in early 2021 – they will be able to communicate a new image from anywhere on Earth every hour, from and regardless of the weather.

According to the company, this can be used to monitor forest fires, oil drilling activities, the effects of climate change, the extent of deforestation, and even the actions of poachers. In the private sector, the system can also be used as a kind of global security camera for hard-to-reach areas, while economic analysts can estimate either the performance of solar parks or the current production rate of individual factories based solely on captured images.

With the help of two SAR-based satellites, they can create up to three-dimensional images, which can also be important in industrial espionage, because with two satellites it can be used to measure part of the distance.

There is something to worry about

Of course, governments can also benefit greatly from such a system. The U.S. government has quickly seized the opportunity, and the Department of Defense, the National Intelligence Surveillance Office, the Navy, and the Air Force, among others, have already signed contracts with the company.

No wonder, because thanks to the great resolution, they can not only determine if, say, any military unit is stationed at another country’s base, but they can also accurately estimate the number of combat devices by piece and type, if any.

All of this, of course, can be a cause for concern, as the U.S. government has been given a day-to-day surveillance device in addition to pennies – even if it’s just a buyer and not an owner at the end of the system.

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