Satellite Surveillance and the Future

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

SpaceChain’s CEO Zee Zheng sat down for an exclusive interview with Tim Draper, the noted venture capitalist, in which Draper outlined his thoughts on the near-term, long-term, and super-long-term applications of space technology. He believes the near-term use-cases will be all about surveillance, the long-term will be about governance, and the super-long-term will be about human habitation. We will explore each of these in a blog series inspired by Draper’s vision.

Ever since the first orbital satellite photographs of Earth were made on August 14, 1959, by the U.S. Explorer 6, mankind has sought to utilize space-based observations to further their understanding of the world. From the monitoring of rival nation states to the scientific study of the planet, space-based observation has shaped our world in both good and bad ways. 

A prime example of this is the recent declassification of high resolution images from the KH-9 observation project launched in 1971. The satellite, built by Lockheed for the National Reconnaissance Office was outfitted with a camera that could achieve a ground resolution of approximately 2 ft (0.61 m) and was tasked with observing rival nation military installations like this image of Kubinka Airfield near Moscow (below). The KH-9 was so effective at its job that the images it took were classified until 2002.

One region that the KH-9 happened to photograph for over 40 years was the Himmylayas. Recently scientists from Columbia University and the University of Utah have now used the KH-9 pictures to present a startling new perspective on the Himalaya’s vanishing glaciers over the past 40 years, providing detailed measurements on changes to the thickness of ice in the Himalayas. The KH-9 scenario is a striking example of how the use of a technology determines its benefits to the world.

                                                                                                 Himalayan glacial coverage taken from KH-9

And with the proliferation of microsatellite technology companies like Open Cosmos, a microsatellite platform designed to manage the entire process of bringing satellite services to businesses, humanity’s access to space-based observational technology and its accompanying benefits is set to grow by leaps and bounds. 

Planet, a microsatellite company that offers consistent monitoring of geographic locations and data analysis is also shaking up the earth observational space by launching satellites faster than any company or government in history. By using lean, low-cost electronics and design iteration they have created the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites to image the entire Earth, daily. By having such a dense constellation of microsatellites Planet is able to provide unforeseen levels of monitoring into issues such as Brazilian deforestation.

Planet Microsatellites

Brazilian Deforestation

Another innovator in this space is ICEYE, a microsatellite company providing broad access to timely and reliable radar satellite imaging for a variety of industries. ICEYE plans to establish an 18-satellite constellation capable of revisiting targets of interest an average of every three hours. Iceye and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) recently announced plans to work together to speed up delivery of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery, allowing government customers to obtain processed data in as little as 15 minutes.

Nonprofit organizations like Oceana are using satellite tracking data to identify illegal fishing activities on the high seas. About every 30 seconds, more than 70,000 fishing vessels responsible for most of the world’s fish catch broadcast automatic identification systems (AIS) signaling their identity, location, and speed. The problem starts when some of these vessels turn off there AIS, essentially dropping off the map, only to reappear later. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to engage in this type of activity, like avoiding pirates, but there are also illegal fishing activities that could be happening as well, or the transfer of illegal fish onto a legal vessel could be occurring. To provide more insight into this type of activity, Ocean has a program called Global Fishing Watch that tracks AIS data globally and reports suspicious activities back to home port countries of the vessels and watchdog agencies.

Global Fishing Watch Interface

A cargo vessel with two smaller fishing boats tied to it in the Indian Ocean. Taken via satellite

DigitalGlobe/SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch

At SpaceChain, we see the innovation in the applications of microsatellite technology and the wide array of applications, from blockchain to earth observation,  as a cornerstone for the new space economy. In the coming years, we will see advancements in space technology that we’ve only dreamed of in sci-fi novels and we could not be more excited to see what comes next.

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