While the war in Ukraine rages on, one of its consequences is already clear: Armies are running out of places to hide.
From far above the Earth, hundreds of orbiting surveillance satellites — mostly owned and operated by private companies — are providing images of the fight so millions can get a close-up look at Vladimir Putin’s war. And the Russians can do nothing about it.
But every military in the world, including that of the United States, 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.”
With their God’s-eye-view of the battlefield, satellite images can provide independent verification of information from videos from low-flying drones and military and civilian smartphones. Despite Russian denials that its troops had committed war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, satellite photos of corpses and a mass grave have provided solid evidence that a massacre had occurred.
The United States doesn’t hold a monopoly on commercial spy satellite networks. There are Chinese operators as well, such as HEAD Satellite Group. It’s possible that in some conflict down the road, a Chinese company could share images of US armored divisions on the move, for use by newspapers, TV networks, and enemy combatants.
Spy satellites were developed in the late 1950s, and much of that underlying technology came out of Massachusetts. Edwin Land, founder of Cambridge-based Polaroid, sold President Dwight Eisenhower on the project, code named Corona. Land used a Lexington camera company called Itek to build the first surveillance cameras for the job. Scientists at the Instrumentation Lab at MIT 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.)
And Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, funded by the 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.”
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 businesses, including Maxar, Planet, and Capella Space.
Commercial satellites are simpler and cheaper. The United States doesn’t disclose the capabilities of its satellites. But it’s believed they are capable of showing objects as small as 4 square inches. That means they could see a pack of cigarettes from space. Meanwhile, the best commercial satellites claim resolution of about one square foot, still good enough to monitor the movements of tanks and troops.
A French company called SPOT launched the first commercial imaging satellite in 1986. The US government let domestic firms enter the market starting in 1992. In the ensuing decades, engineers developed smaller, cheaper satellites, while rocket companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX slashed the cost of launching them into orbit. Today, satellites can be launched dozens at a time, then parked in orbits that let them routinely scan the world below.
The San Francisco-based company Planet uses an array of about 200 small satellites called “doves” that scan every piece of land on Earth every day.
“The US government and others don’t have that,” said Planet chief executive Will Marshall, which explains why the United States is also one of Planet’s biggest customers.
The photos from Planet aren’t nearly as sharp as those of more advanced commercial satellites. But by analyzing them over time, users can detect major activities on the ground. For example, in February, before the invasion began, Russia said it was withdrawing some troops. But within hours, one of Planet’s routine scans spotted a military pontoon bridge newly erected across the Pripyat River in Belarus near the Ukraine border. It was clear evidence the Russians were still coming.
Once Planet’s smaller satellites have spotted something, the company can zoom in using one of its 21 high-resolution satellites. These can be remotely aimed at a specific target, and are capable of distinguishing objects about 1.5 square feet in size. Photos of parked vehicles are so sharp that a viewer can tell whether they’re package delivery vans or armored personnel carriers.
Planet and other companies provide images to anyone willing to pay: farmers monitoring the health of their crops, retailers keeping tabs on the number of cars in shopping mall parking lots, environmentalists studying deforestation in the Amazon.
And news organizations reporting on a war. High-resolution images from Maxar have been featured in news coverage worldwide. Meanwhile, satellites operated by Capella Space of San Francisco can shoot images around the clock, in all weather, because they use radar rather than visible light.
“We can see through the clouds, no matter what the weather conditions are,” said Capella Space chief executive Payam Banazadeh.
Easy access to these images can be a benefit or a menace for political leaders. During the Cold War, the government controlled what information was released and when, said Erik Lin-Greenberg, assistant professor of political science at MIT. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Kennedy administration released images shot by U-2 spy planes of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles being set up on Cuban soil. The images rallied domestic support for President John F. Kennedy’s successful effort to get the missiles removed.
A similar situation is unfolding with the Ukraine war. A steady stream of grim satellite images has helped to bolster public support for tough sanctions against Russia.
But as Lin-Greenberg pointed out, sometimes releasing too much information “can lead to a much more escalatory situation.” For instance, if the United States had satellite photos of new Chinese nuclear missile silos, it might prefer to deal with the matter through quiet diplomacy, rather than boost tensions between the two nations.
But commercial imaging satellites can 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 United States, that keeping such secrets will only get more difficult.
Can the Russians do anything to shield their forces in Ukraine from freelance surveillance? They’ve tested antisatellite weapons, but there are far too many to shoot them all down. Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the aerospace program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Russia’s best bet is some kind of cyberattack against the satellite companies, noting its military has already in Ukraine 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 still have no place to hide.