A U.S space satellite company is transforming the way we see our planet, and they’re removing every barrier in their way – including walls. Currently orbiting Earth at 7.5 km per second, Capella Space’s Capella-2 satellite is the world’s highest resolution synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite and is capable of imaging anything visible from the sky with a resolution of just 50 cm x 50 cm.
What makes this satellite even more special, however, is just how penetrating the radar is. Much like signal from your cell phone can penetrate through walls, in certain scenarios so too can the SAR technology. The images produced create an eerie landscape of ‘ghost’ buildings that allow users of the satellite imagery to gain a 3D insight onto the area in question, and the same technology also allows the Capella-2 to see straight through the clouds. This is the true strength of SAR – while most satellites require a clear day to capture a view of the ground, SAR satellites can be operational without relying on good weather.
Whilst a laser-vision satellite seems like a privacy nightmare, it is important to note that SAR does not allow companies to image the inside of buildings. Since the technology was unveiled, many claimed that the Capella-2 could be leveraged to spy on people even behind the safety of closed doors, but this is unfounded – although the radar can pass through walls, Capella claim the waves are too weak to image anything inside, as can be seen in the image above.
This fact does not prevent SAR from being utilized in global surveillance, however. Capella Space are pushing forward with plans to deploy enough satellites to provide hourly coverage of everywhere on the Earth’s surface, a feat that would change satellite imaging dramatically. The satellite company claims that such coverage would enable response to crises to be more informed, faster and better executed.
“One of the most recent events that could have used our capability were the millions of acres of the West Coast of the United States that were devastated by wildfires and completely blanketed a third of our country in hazardous opaque smoke,” states CEO and founder Payam Banazadeh in a statement.
“If we can’t see what’s happening around us, we can’t make good decisions. SAR allows us, our first responders, our policy makers, and the world to see. That is critical.”
So how does a SAR satellite work? Much like other radar technologies, SAR sends pulses of radio waves to impact the desired area and bounce off, creating an echo that can be detected upon its return. The echoes are then stitched together by software to create an image. Using SAR to image the Earth is not exclusive to Capella, with similar radars used aboard many different spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Endeavor, though Capella-2 is currently the clear leader in high-resolution imaging.
Now, Capella are releasing a new product called Spotlight, in which customers can pay for access to long-exposure shots of specific areas of interest. These images are captured for as long as 60 seconds, creating an extreme level of detail that is of interest to both scientists and the military. Luckily, the product isn’t available to everyone – a vetting procedure is carried out on any people requesting images.
With the capability of monitoring the entire planet every hour, is it easy to see why the satellite throws up privacy concerns. Debates have already raged throughout 2019 and 2020 over the use of facial recognition, and surveillance technologies such as this only adds fuel to the fire. Despite the concerns, Capella are pushing forward with the technology, claiming that it will not be used for sinister applications and instead will be a force for good.