Russia’s war in Ukraine will turbocharge the commercial space industry
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, front pages and social media newsfeeds around the world have cataloged the various atrocities and blunders committed by the Russian troops. From the Bucha massacre, in which countless extrajudicially executed civilians were piled into mass graves, to the trenches which Russian soldiers dug in the highly radioactive area near the crippled Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the West has had a bird’s eye view of Russia’s aggression as it unfolded, almost in real-time.
This is, in large part, thanks to the commercial development of satellites and other forms of technology that have penetrated the fog of war and, in many cases, offered concrete evidence to contradict the official Russian narrative that is likely to feature prominently in the future war crimes trials for which Western decisionmakers are increasingly calling. Incontrovertible video and photographic evidence have been instrumental in ensuring accountability for previous crimes against humanity—the so-called “Butcher of Bosnia,” General Ratko Mladić, was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide in part on the strength of video proof showing him on the site of the horrific Srebrenica massacre.
Visual evidence, however, has never been so plentiful during an unfolding conflict as during Putin’s war in Ukraine. High-quality imagery from leading commercial satellite companies such as Capella Space and Maxar has kept the world informed throughout the conflict, giving the layman—and the Ukrainians, who do not have a satellite fleet of their own—a remarkable level of detail on Russian troop movements, potential war crimes and impending attacks. The brutal conflict in Ukraine is undoubtedly a pivotal moment with any number of follow-on impacts; one of them is sure to be a rapid acceleration in interest and support for the commercial space sector.
Commercial satellite imagery: a game-changer in the Russo-Ukrainian War
The U.S. government has long had access to extremely powerful reconnaissance satellites, such as the Keyhole satellite, which has an estimated resolution of 5 centimeters per pixel—a level of clarity at which the “V” and “Z” letters painted on many Russian military vehicles, for example, would be easily visible. This imagery, however, is classified and normally kept close to the American intelligence community’s chest.
But leading commercial operators, a field which includes two San Francisco-based firms, Capella Space and Planet Labs, as well as Colorado-headquartered Maxar and Virginia-based BlackSky, have also developed highly sophisticated satellites. As Capella Space founder and CEO Payam Banazadeh explained in a recent interview with Bobby Yazdani, the founding partner of VC firm Cota Capital, one of Capella’s major investors, the company’s pioneering Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites are able to monitor the significant portion of Earth which is under nighttime darkness or cloud cover at any given time. “[Our satellites allow] us to monitor anywhere in the world, any time of the day or night, through the storm, through the fog, through the sand, through anything,” Banazadeh explained.
SAR satellites’ ability to deliver clear imagery despite the frequent bad weather and cloud coverage over Ukraine has been a game-changer, and their satellite imagery has tracked every phase of Putin’s war. In the days leading up to the February 24 invasion, satellite imagery gave some of the first indications that the Kremlin had decided to proceed with an attack. As the deadly conflict has dragged on, key elements of Russia’s narrative have been debunked by commercial satellite imagery: for example, Russian defense officials claimed that the horrifying images of murdered civilians in Bucha had been taken after Russian troops left the city on March 30, but publicly available satellite images proved that many of the civilians had been killed weeks earlier, while Russian troops were still in control of the area.
The availability of these images has already had major policy implications, with the confirmation that the Russians had been responsible for the horrors of Bucha an instrumental factor in convincing the EU to press forward with additional sanctions against Putin’s regime. They will continue to constitute an important resource long after the war is over. Andrew Zolli, chief impact officer at Planet Labs, argued that the growth of the commercial space industry means that Ukraine is different from any previous conflict: “the satellites will guide the war crimes prosecutors to sites where they will collect ground evidence. And the combination of the ground evidence and satellite imagery and other digital sources of evidence will be collected for future prosecutions”.
A sector with a promising future
If the commercial satellite industry has been a game-changer in Ukraine, the conflict is also likely to prove a watershed moment for the sector. “You don’t get a better opportunity than this to show how remote sensing can support media storytelling and help with the general public’s understanding of a crisis like Ukraine,” emphasized Scott Herman, the CEO of startup Cognitive Space, whose AI-based software tools are being used by U.S. national security agencies to coordinate data collection from a hybrid architecture of government and commercial satellites.
The development of this hybrid architecture, with a growing number of public-private partnerships, will give a further boost to a sector that is already growing at a breakneck pace—estimates released just before the war in Ukraine suggested that the commercial geospatial business, now a $9.1 billion industry, is on track to balloon to $37.5 billion by 2026.
As more and more commercial satellites are launched, the next step, as Capella Space founder Banazadeh explained, is to build ever-stronger connections between these satellites and terrestrial sensors. Once this fully integrated set of sensors is built, companies will be able to monitor the entire planet in real-time, picking up not only on things that have already happened but modeling things that are likely to happen, allowing the public and private sector alike to get ahead of the curve. This innovative shift is already underway—but the worldwide spotlight which the Ukraine crisis has thrown on the commercial space sector will likely accelerate it sharply.