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INNOVATION BEAT

How commercial spy satellites are changing war

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows cruiser Moskva in port Sevastopol in Crimea on April 7, 2022. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)Associated Press

While the war in Ukraine rages on, one of its consequences is already clear: Armies are running out of places to hide.

From hundreds of miles above the earth, hundreds of orbiting surveillance satellites — most owned and operated by private corporations — are providing images to news organizations and giving millions a close-up look at Vladimir Putin’s war. The Russians can do nothing about it. But every military in the world, including that of the US, has been put on notice. From now on, all large-scale military operations will take place in public view.

Armies must “wake up and smell the 21st century coffee,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics who publishes a catalog of every known satellite in Earth orbit. “What you do is going to be visible to the world, and you should govern yourselves accordingly.”

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There’s nothing new about spy satellites. They were developed in the late 1950s, with much of the underlying technology developed in Massachusetts. Edwin Land, founder of Cambridge-based Polaroid, sold President Dwight Eisenhower on the project, codenamed Corona. Land picked a Lexington camera company called Itek to build the first surveillance cameras for the job. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation Lab played key roles in Corona’s design.

The Instrumentation Lab, since renamed Draper Lab and spun off from MIT, is still in the surveillance satellite business. It’s developing navigational software for the next generation of imaging satellites made by Colorado firm Maxar, which are due to begin launching this year. (The six new satellites, called WorldView Legion, will be able to shoot high-resolution images of the same spot on Earth up to 15 times each day.)

Meanwhile, Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, funded by the US Department of Defense and managed by MIT, is so intimately involved in satellite imaging that a spokesman said nobody at the lab would discuss the subject with a reporter, “even from a general perspective.”

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The US government’s intelligence satellites are still believed to be the world’s most advanced. But lately they’ve been overshadowed by an array of space observers owned and operated by companies such as Maxar, Planet, and Capella Space. (None of those are local.) Their satellites are less sophisticated, but they provide far more comprehensive coverage of the planet, and make their images available to almost anybody willing to pay.

Easy access to these images can be a benefit or a menace for political leaders. During the Cold War, “the government was able to control what information was released, who released it, and when it was released,” said Erik Lin-Greenberg, assistant professor of political science at MIT.

The US could release spy photos when it suited the government’s interests to whip up public indignation — during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, for instance. Something similar has happened in Ukraine, where a steady stream of grim satellite images has bolstered public support for tough sanctions against Russia.

But “sometimes you release too much information, and it can lead to a much more escalatory situation,” Lin-Greenberg said. For instance, if the US had satellite photos of new Chinese nuclear missile silos, it might prefer to deal with the matter through quiet diplomacy, rather than boost tensions publicly.

Commercial imaging satellites take this option off the table. Last year, independent researchers used satellite photos to pinpoint dozens of new Chinese missile silos and broadcast their discovery to the world. It was a warning to China, and the US, that keeping such secrets will only get more difficult.

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Can the Russians do anything to shield their forces from freelance surveillance? Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the aerospace program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that Russia’s best bet is some kind of cyberattack against the satellite companies.Johnson noted that Russian forces in Ukraine have already hacked satellite-based Internet services and jammed the signals from GPS navigation satellites.

“It hasn’t really come out that they’ve attacked the commercial imagery satellites,” Johnson said. “But if that happens today or tomorrow, I would not be surprised to see it.”

Still, with so many satellite networks aiming their cameras at Kyiv, a complete blackout seems impossible. Which means that the invaders of Ukraine have no place to hide.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.