Space Race over the Suez Canal

 Space Race over the Suez Canal

After a six-day blockade of the Suez Canal, the Evergreen ‘Ever Given’ mega containership was pulled out of the banks and shallows of the canal on Monday 29 March 2021, with the support of Dutch shipping and salvage company Boskalis Smit Salvage. The blocking of the canal was a minor maritime disaster, where the ship remained undamaged, but had a massive impact on world trade , the effects of which will be felt for months. It clearly identified a major risk in the global supply chain, caused by geographic and perhaps geopolitical factors.

While the digger, dredge and tugboat ‘race’ to end the blockade was making headlines in the international press, another ‘race’ took place high over the canal. A race to provide the salvage teams, as well as the international media, with high resolution imagery from space. Starting as a serious attempt to provide ‘big picture’ overviews of the blockade and the build-up of traffic on both ends of the canal, it soon turned into a media showcase for space imaging capabilities by government and commercial remote sensing organisations.

Copernicus Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 images of the Suez region (credit: European Union)

It started with the top left image above, taken by the European Copernicus Sentinel-2 optical satellite. Not the best quality, but it showed the world a very clear image of the problem. A few days later a cleaner version of the same image was published (bottom image). A few days later the European Commission unveiled an image of the building up traffic at the southern end of the canal, showcasing the capabilities of its Sentinel-1 SAR radar satellite (top right).

First Planet images of the Ever Given (credit: Planet)

Not long after the publication of the first Copernicus image we saw the first commercial operator following suit. Planet, known for its close collaborations with investigative journalism, was first. Their first image equalled the rough Sentinel-2 picture, but soon Planet came with much more detailed images, showcasing not only their Dove constellation of cubesat-size satellites, but also their much higher resolution SkySats.

Capella Space SAR images of the ship (credit: Capella Space)

Shortly after the first optical pictures of the situation, US commercial satellite operator Capella Space showed us the capabilities of its latest radar technology, with several visualisations by their brand new 0.5m resolution SAR satellites, showing new levels of detail that are not so obvious on optical images, and show the benefits of being able to take these images under cloud cover and in darkness.

Hi-resolution photos of the ship by Airbus Pleiades (credit: Airbus)

The next level of detail came on the third day of the salvage attempt, when Airbus pointed its Pleiades satellites at the scene, showing the power of high-resolution optical technology. It revealed amazing detail from an altitude of almost 700 km over the canal. It also showed the advantage of angled imaging, showing the mega containership in 3D. Airbus kept flying over the scene in the following days, showing detailed images of the anchored ships in the Red Sea, carrying tens of thousands of delayed containers.

Details of the salvage operation by Maxar WorldView-2 (credit: Maxar)

A day after the Airbus pictures, Canadian satellite operator Maxar zoomed even further into the Ever Given, using its just under 0.5m resolution WorldView and GeoEye sensors. It showed the bow section of the ship firmly stuck into the bank, while tugboats and dredges worked to move it free.

The Ever Given by Resurs-P, Gokturk-1, Tianyan-05 and NOAA-20

In the true spirit of a space race, several traditional space nations used the incident to showcase some more unusual observation platforms, some of which rarely make it to the media. Russian space agency Roscosmos was the first to go public, with great optical images from its Resurs-P satellite (top left). Two days later the Turkish Ministry of National Defence showed an image from the Gokturk-1 satellite (bottom left). On the day that the EverGiven broke free, Chinese ‘commercial’ satellite operator MinoSpace showed an image taken by its brand new Tianyan-05 satellite, better known as the world’s first ‘6G’ satellite. On the same day US government NOAA showed us a result from it NOAA-20 satellite, which stands out as the only visible infrared spectrum sensor in this story, showing us a large area of Egypt, including the entire canal plus the anchorage of dozens of megaships in the Red Sea.

Two passes of the Emirates’ Khalifasat (credit: MBRSC)

An incident of this type in the Middle East proved a great subject to showcase the capabilities of the new Emerati ‘Khalifasat‘ Earth Observation satellite, developed and built by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. A small satellite with an impressive 0.7m resolution, flying 613 km over the ship.

Satellite photos of the moment the ship brake free from the Suez Canal bank (credit: Maxar)

On the 28th of March it looked like the blockade would soon be coming to an end, with the arrival of powerful dredgers and extra tugboat capacity from Italy and the Netherlands. More Maxar WorldView images show the bow still stuck on the 28th. On the 29th however, Maxar became the ‘winner’ of the remote sensing race, providing the first images from space of the ship coming out of the bank on Monday 29 March. Especially the bottom right picture clearly shows the ship no longer diagonally stuck, with its bow slowly coming free, with the powerful Smit Salvage tugboat pulling hard on its stern.

Video from space taken in the middle of the salvage operation (credit: Planet)

But the ‘piece the resistance’ came after the ship had just been pulled out, with Planet publishing a short video taken from its hi-resolution SkySat satellite, passing over the ship at 500 km altitude on the 27th of March. The megaship is not visibly moving, but the small boats at its stern definitely are!

This Earth Observation ‘space race’ played out on social media and in the press, adding valuable, educational and entertaining angles to the dramatic story. Without casualties, and only economic and perhaps some brand damage, it became a story of human ingenuity, and technological advance in the water and in space! It very clearly shows that this space race only has winners, and that they come from countries all over the world. It also shows that Earth Observation has become the domain of commercial satellite operators, using small and agile satellites and fast processes to convert space data into useful information.

See below a short summary of all players and satellites that I could find that took part in this space race, plus a few characteristics of its orbit, sensor type and spatial resolution. Of course I could have added other information, like temporal resolution, form factor (some of these are very large, others are cubesats), swath width, or sensor spectra. The space element of Earth Observation is very technology-driven, but this article shows its true added value: turning complex technology into valuable, educational and entertaining information for society on Earth. And that’s what it delivered.

Operator/SatelliteAltitudeSensor TypeSpatial Resolution
Copernicus Sentinel-1693 kmSAR5 m
Copernicus Sentinel-2786 kmOptical10 m
Capella Space500 kmSAR0.5 m
Maxar WorldView-2770 kmOptical0.46 m
Maxar GeoEye-1680 kmOptical0.41 m
Planet Dove450 kmOptical3 m
Planet SkySat500 kmOptical0.5 m
Airbus Pleiades694 kmOptical0.7 m
Roscosmos Resurs-P475 kmOptical1 m
Turkish Gokturk-1683 kmOptical0.8 m
MBRSC Khalifasat613 kmOptical0.7 m
NOAA-20830 kmIR400 m
Minospace Tianyan-05470 kmOptical‘hi-res’
All satellite operators that published images of the Ever Given and Suez Canal in March 2021

Header image credit: Shutterstock

Remco Timmermans

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