Straight from the beginning of the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine we talked about the use of satellite data for information about the situation on the ground. Disaster monitoring and management has long been one of the focus points of Earth Observation satellites, both in the context of natural, as well as human-caused disasters.
Many of the images of destroyed Ukrainian cities were taken by journalists on the ground. One of these journalists, Vyacheslav Tverdokhlib, according to the Ukrainian Television News Service, sought shelter in the basements of Mariupol and barely survived. He was able to take photos and videos on a memory card, which he had to hide in secrecy. Of course satellites do not need to hide, and provide continuous information from any location in the world.
You cannot hide: Space is watching
In 21st century warfare information is a powerful weapon. The information war is not new, but its consequences can be more destructive than ever. Apart from physical armed clashes, unreliable testimonies, unverified sources, outright fakes, and malicious propaganda can cause a lot of harm. In this situation, where you can believe no one, satellite imagery is one of the few unbiased sources.
According to the BBC Russian service, numerous images distributed by companies like Maxar Technologies and Planet allow both the general public and military analysts, thousands of kilometers from the scene, to judge the situation in Ukraine and follow the moves of Russian troops.
Just in the past week alone, satellites have managed to film downed Russian helicopters, a destroyed shopping centre and residential areas of Mariupol, as well as a tanker burning in the Black Sea.
Who shares images of destroyed cities in Ukraine?
Two weeks ago Радіо Свобода (Ukrainian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) shared a series of Maxar satellite images taken on 14 March. These pictures show new destruction in Mariupol, a city under siege by Russian troops. Satellites also recorded an increase in the activity of Russian forces in Moschun, northwest of Kyiv. In addition, satellites filmed the Zmiinyi Island in the Black Sea, where there was a Ukrainian border detachment.
On March 25, the Ukrainian edition of Корреспондент.net (Correspondent.net), referring to CNN, shared Maxar’s satellite images of the destroyed city of Izyum, which has been on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe for two weeks now.
“24 Канал” (24 Channel) reported that Maxar is not the only company that provides the full picture of the invasion. Satellites operated by Planet, BlackSky, and other companies also capture optical images of the war and its aftermath. Companies, such as Capella Space are looking at the region with synthesized aperture radar (SAR), which don’t need sunlight or clear skies to get a good view of the Earth.
Star Wars: Too much power for satellite operators?
According to Wired, some researchers are now worried that “the reliance on satellite imagery has given too much power to the companies that control this technology”.
Experts have expressed concerns that private companies, who themselves choose if and what to share and with whom, may also have military contracts with specific countries involved in military conflicts.
In this information war, commercial satellites themselves can now become military targets. This implies a potential spread of the conflict to outer space, ranging from cyber attacks to physical destruction. Several countries in the world already have demonstrated that they possess guided missile technology that can reach satellites in orbit.
At Groundstation.space we actively report on satellite data applications during the war in Ukraine. Please find all related articles on our Space for Ukraine page.