How new satellite data sources enhance investigative journalism

New IR and SAR satellite data sources could make it harder for criminals and lawbreakers to hide and provide open-source intelligence and data journalists with new firepower.

SAR image by Capella Space

The right satellite images can be the ‘smoking gun’ in an investigation against mischief and wrongdoing. Our own investigations have proven the value of satellite data. Whether it’s images portraying crimes against humanity, severe environmental misconduct or just clues that something might go wrong for further verification, visual intelligence can be an essential mean to present a corpus delicti.

For my own investigations, this has proven to be highly effective. But there are caveats to conventional satellite data. Clouds constitute one major problem. They can cover at the wrong time an area of interest and miss the action. Culprits may know this and try to avoid, for instance, illegal at-sea transhipments in cloudless weather conditions or cut forests illegally when they can hide behind from the spying eyes of satellite images.

The latest generation of satellite earth monitoring technology has several answers to this problem.

One of such companies proposing alternatives to the conventional visual remote sensing data is HawkEye 360. The company uses formation-flying satellites to build a class of radio frequency (RF) data. The data by the space tech startup based in Virginia, US could prove valuable for investigating land-based conflicts, fish fraud and IUU fishing activities more broadly, sanction breaking at-sea transfers, to name a few examples. It says it provides the data to governments and private parties, who uses it in various ways such as for defence programs, wildlife protection, and maritime applications.

“We did a lot of work in the Galapagos, looking at the activity of vessel of a Chinese fishing fleet. They were coming up along the border of the Galapagos Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). We tried to provide better visibility and tracking of that large fleet”, says Adam Bennett, product marketing director at HawkEye 360 (see below).

At sea, its satellites proved useful to expose renegades by listening for specific RF signals emitted by ships through their navigation radars and radio communications. It’s not only the cloud problem these new techniques can tackle. By using RF, vessels that maliciously (or not), turn off their AIS tracking signal — I reported on this problem as part of a previous investigation — may find it harder to hide much longer.

Another company is Capella Space, a SpaceX’s customer that was on board on the Transporter-1, a SpaceX mission that was the first of a series of SmallSat Rideshare missions that launched in January. The San Francisco-based outfit issues high-quality Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery. SAR data is microwave data sent by an active sensor.

It’s emitted from an energy source from an observation platform such as a satellite. The data then used for analysis consists of the energy signal reflected back from the earth surface. Radar’s instrumentation and antenna dictate the spatial resolution of the data.

The resolution of Capella SAR images is astonishingly high. Shortly after the container ship EVER GIVEN got stuck in the Suez Canal, the company’s analysts were able to published SAR images of the blockage. “It’s just something that you would not be able to do without having that level of automation and high revisit”, Michael Lapides at the company says.

In March, the company released images captured by its two latest spacecraft launched in January. A small and inexpensive spacecraft allows building a network of satellites that can capture the earth at high frequency. Several times a day is the goal for now.

Capella/Facebook

SAR technology for intelligence gathering became increasingly usable for earth observations, experts say. The market is enormous, analysts say.

Capella is not the only player in town, however. Finnish satellite imagery firm ICEYE with a similar offering continues to grow abroad in the US and elsewhere. It announced in March that it signed business contracts worth $50m last year.

For a use case of how to extract value for intelligence work from SAR images, you don’t have to look far.

Intelligence-seeking customers can use Capella’s services for what the company calls ‘persistent monitoring’ scenarios. One recent use case saw Capella’s SAR intelligence in action when a press organisation knocked on its door. There was an interest to monitor and assess the progression of the China-India border conflict. The outfit wanted to look at the Chinese side of the border to understand activity in the Himalayas. It found what it was looking for, that is, confirmation on buildup near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In other images in Capella-2 SAR images, observers could see white objects that represent armoured vehicles climbing up and down mountain roads near Ladakh, a region administered by India as a union territory, adding important detail to the border dispute in Galwan Valley where the border strife resulted in armed conflict. Capella images could expose intelligence what other low-resolution open-source satellite images couldn’t see (such as open-source Sentinel 2 images).

What gave investigators an edge was that Capella’s SAR images captured high-resolution data of night-time activity. The images pierced through the heavy cloud cover of the Himalaya mountain range, a region that is notoriously cloudy at night, and “usually when the most interesting things happen”, a Capella analyst says. With that technological intelligence at hand, analysts could then identify the build-up of radar systems developed on the ground and other new infrastructures such as bunkers and trenches.

SAR image example: Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base (Capella)
SAR image example: Image of Aksum Airport (in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia), captured during the Tigray conflict when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front sabotaged the runway before falling to federal forces. Smooth tarmac absorbs radar energy and dirt from the trenches dug across the runway are much brighter in comparison (Capella).
SAR image example: Capturing the skyline of Tokyo, Japan (Capella)
SAR image example: Nanhui New City, a planned city located in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, China
Urumqi reeducation camp in Xinjiang, China
SAR image example: Roswell Air Center, south of Roswell in Chaves County, New Mexico (Capella)
SAR image example: Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil (Capella)

The company spokesperson says that its 50 cm x 50 cm SAR is the highest resolution commercially available. “The company uses an automated cloud-based delivery platform to rapidly deliver data from its constellation to government and commercial customers in all-weather conditions 24 hours a day”.

Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice

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