The resolution is so crisp that you can see inside individual rooms. No this isn’t from a sci-fi movie. It’s very much a reality thanks to a company called Capella Space. They launched a satellite that is so powerful it is capable of taking clear radar images of anywhere in the world with incredible resolution. And yes, it can even see through the walls of buildings.
They plan on deploying six additional satellites next year.
And unlike most surveillance and observational satellite currently orbiting the earth, the Capella 2 satellite can take a clear picture during the day or night, with the sun shining or even when it rains. It can peer right through cloud cover, and see just as well in the day as it can in the dark. That’s because instead of using optical imaging, their satellite uses something called synthetic aperture radar, or SAR. 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.
“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, said. “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.”
The company recently launched a platform that allows governmental and private customers to request images of anything in the world.
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.
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. And because the satellite is sending down its own signal rather than passively capturing light, sometimes those signals can even penetrate right through a building’s wall, peering at the interior like Superman’s X-ray vision.
“At that frequency, the clouds are pretty much transparent,” Banazadeh said. “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.”
“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 discern 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. You won’t be able to on the below image because it’s too compressed, but Banazadeh said that the original image was so detailed you could check out individual rooms.
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.
And interestingly, that resolution cap is the only limit that the law places on services like Capella’s. As long as the company doesn’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 — even technically the inside of a home.
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 more users that previously couldn’t access this market,” Banazadeh said. “That’s our hope.”