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A New Satellite Can Peer Inside Some Buildings, Day or Night

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May 17, 2022, 3:53:34 AM5/17/22


A New Satellite Can Peer Inside Some Buildings, Day or Night

But don't worry — the company says it can't see inside your home.

A few months ago, a company called Capella Space launched a satellite
capable of taking clear radar images of anywhere in the world, with
incredible resolution. It can even see inside some buildings, including
spotting airplanes inside hangars — though only in the case of
lightweight structures, the company clarified, and not dense ones like
high rises or residential homes.

And unlike most of the huge array of surveillance and observational
satellites orbiting the Earth, its satellite Capella 2 can snap a clear
picture during night or day, rain or shine.

“It turns out that half of the world is in nighttime, and half of the
world, on average, is cloudy,” CEO Payam Banazadeh, a former system
engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Futurism. “When you
combine those two together, about 75 percent of Earth, at any given
time, is going to be cloudy, nighttime, or it’s going to be both. It’s
invisible to you, and that portion is moving around.”

On Wednesday, Capella launched a platform allowing governmental or
private customers to request images of anything in the world — a
capability that will only get more powerful with the deployment of six
additional satellites next year. Is that creepy from a privacy point of
view? Sure. But Banazadeh says that it also plugs numerous holes in the
ways scientists and government agencies are currently able to monitor
the planet.

“There’s a bunch of gaps in how we’re currently observing Earth from
space — the majority of the sensors we use to observe earth are optical
imaging sensors,” he said. “If it’s cloudy, you’re going to see the
clouds, not what’s happening under the clouds. And if there’s not much
light, you’re going to have a really hard time getting an image that is

By contrast, Capella can peer right through cloud cover, and see just as
well in the daylight as in total darkness. That’s because instead of
optical imaging, it uses synthetic aperture radar, or SAR.

SAR works similarly to how dolphins and bats navigate using
echolocation. The satellite beams down a powerful 9.65 GHz radio signal
toward its target, and then collects and interprets the signal as it
bounces back up into orbit.

“At that frequency, the clouds are pretty much transparent,” Banazadeh
told Futurism. “You can penetrate clouds, fog, moisture, smoke, haze.
Those things don’t matter anymore. And because you’re generating your
own signal, it’s as if you’re carrying a flashlight. You don’t care if
it’s day or night.”

Capella didn’t invent SAR. But Banazadeh says it’s the first U.S.
company to offer the technology, and the first worldwide to offer a more
accessible platform for potential customers to use.

“Part of the challenge in this industry is that working with satellite
imagery providers has been difficult,” he explained. “You might have to
send a bunch of emails to find out how they could collect images for
you. In some instances, you might have to send a fax.”

Another innovation, he says, is the resolution at which Capella’s
satellites can collect imagery. Each pixel in one of the satellite’s
images represents a 50-centimeter-by-50-centimeter square, while other
SAR satellites on the market can only get down to around five meters.
When it comes to actually discerning what you’re looking at from space,
that makes a huge difference.

Cityscapes are particularly intriguing. Skyscrapers poke out of the
Earth like ghostly, angular mushrooms — and, if you look carefully, you
notice that you can see straight through some of them, though the
company clarified that this is a visual distortion rather than truly
seeing through the structures.

Right now, that’s as good a resolution as is possible with SAR. Not
because of technological limitations — Capella hopes to improve with
subsequent satellite launches down the road — but because of U.S. law,
export controls, and licensing requirements.

As long as the company don’t improve the resolution a hair beyond what
it’s at now, Banazadeh said its satellites can image any part of the
world that a paying customer asks for.

Those customers, he explained, could be government agencies monitoring a
hostile military for movement or tracking an airport for activity.
That’s where that wall-penetrating vision comes into play. Banazadeh
gave the example of an airport where planes hidden under a canopy became
clear as day thanks to SAR satellites. The customers may also be
scientists peering through the thick clouds of the Amazon rainforest to
track deforestation, or even investors checking up on global supply chains.

Possibilities abound. Train two SAR satellites on the same target and
they can actually image targets in three dimensions down to minute
differences in height. Banazadeh said one group is already using that
trick to measure how much oil is being stored in open-top oil tanks or
how much is being extracted from an open-pit mine on a given day — and
using that information as a proxy for the value of various commodities.
That can also help authorities monitor infrastructure for possible
safety issues: SAR can track how much the ground above a tunnel sinks
over time, for example.

“We’re making it very easy for people with all sorts of backgrounds to
interact with a company like us, and that inevitably is going to bring a
more users that previously couldn’t access this market,” Banazadeh said.
“That’s our hope.”
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