How private satellite images are shaping the Ukrainian conflict

Private companies are providing exclusive images of the Ukraine  – Russia conflict  from space. 


These shots allow the public to know precisely the war tactics used by both sides.

From a Russian military convoy moving towards Kiev to missile damage or the movement of refugees: in the Ukrainian conflict, satellite images  from private companies allow the general public to access information previously reserved for intelligence agencies.

These technologies, which can pass through clouds and operate at night, have come to the fore, allowing near real-time interpretations of what is happening on the battlefield.

“Governments are no longer the only ones producing high-precision satellite data, ” said Craig Nazareth, a former US intelligence officer turned academic at the University of Arizona.

Thanks to the huge growth of the private satellite industry, the volume of images is higher and the response time is faster compared to previous conflicts, such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.

Most Western nations have their own satellites, but this information is classified, unlike that of private companies.

These third-party images help lend credence to claims by governments, including the United States and the United Kingdom, that have generated the most public mistrust since the 2003 Iraq war.

Politicians can say, “Look, it’s not us, this is really happening, we’re not making it up,” Nazareth said.

Beyond helping to shape the narrative, the images are primarily intended to assist Ukrainian forces on the ground.

” Capella Space is working directly with the governments of the United States and Ukraine … to provide updated data and assistance in the current conflict,” said the head of the company, Payam Banazadeh.


Images taken by this San Francisco-based startup helped a group of independent researchers realize that the invasion of Ukraine had been launched , hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “military operation” in the early hours of February 24th.

Prior to that speech, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in California pointed out a traffic jam on Google Maps where Capella Space had seen a military convoy. According to him, they were probably Russian civilians blocked by roadblocks set up to let the convoy through.

While most imaging satellites require daylight and clear skies, Capella Space ‘s ones work in all weathers, thanks to a technology called SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar).

SAR “penetrates clouds and smoke, even in very large storms or fires, so we can capture clear, accurate images of Earth in almost any condition,” said Dan Getman, the company’s vice president of products.

The technology has been around since the mid-20th century, but was only introduced to the private sector very recently.

Another company whose images were heavily used by the media is BlackSky , which published what it believes was one of the first engagements of the war: an attack on the Lugansk thermal power station shortly after 4:00 p.m. local time on the 23rd. February.

In traditional north-south orbits, a satellite might take only two snapshots of a given location per day, but BlackSky flies its hardware counterclockwise to the planet’s rotation, allowing them to revisit areas more frequently. .

Images are sent to clients within 90 minutes, and software using artificial intelligence helps interpret them.

Ethical concerns?

Perhaps the most striking image of the conflict so far has been an image of the 40-mile-long Russian convoy, captured by Maxar , “the dean of the industry,” according to Chris Quilty of Quilty Analytics.

Unlike traditional satellites that only point straight down, Maxar ‘s have gyroscopes that allow them to turn and point more precisely.

Planet , which works with governments, intergovernmental organizations and the media, posted images showing before/after comparisons of the attacks.

“Bridges collapsed. Planes destroyed. We will continue to bring this to light,” Planet co-founder and CEO Will Marshall tweeted Thursday.

The US government is one of Maxar ‘s main clients and therefore decides which areas to look at, which explains the time currently spent in Ukraine.

But the selective publication of the images taken could also raise ethical questions.

Maxar and others “are inevitably capturing images of Ukrainian troop movements and defensive positions and that information is not being released to the public,” Quilty said.

Thus, according to him, “there is undoubtedly an ability to influence the narrative, depending on the available images” (AFP)