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Commercial Satellites Expose Authoritarians to Unwelcome Transparency

March 15, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights a new reality: commercial space companies are changing the dynamics of modern conflict. For over six decades, space has been the domain of global superpowers. In the 21st century, commercial space technologies are beginning to level the playing field among nations and between governments and their citizens.

This shift is currently on display in the public domain. It is evident from the satellite images from Maxar and Capella Space informing major news outlets’ reporting on Ukraine. It is evident from the Twitter exchanges that led to SpaceX delivering Starlink terminals to augment internet connectivity in Ukraine. It is evident in the public statements and data released by Hawkeye 360, Spire Global, ICEYE, and Satellogic, about their activities to increase transparency on the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. There is undoubtedly more happening outside of the public eye. It will likely be many months before the full role of commercial space companies in this crisis is known and reaches the public domain.

To be clear, the United States Government has long had the capabilities that commercial space companies are exhibiting in this conflict.  What is notable is that the commercial nature of these capabilities allows for more open sharing of information, not just with allied governments but with the global public.  In addition, the number and scale of commercial satellite constellations allows for information to be gathered on a more frequent basis, augmenting governmental capabilities.  In short, authoritarians attempting to control a narrative have an ever-narrowing ability to obscure their intentions or deny readily apparent facts on the ground.

It was noteworthy that Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov penned an open letter to commercial space companies asking for their assistance, specifically naming Planet, Maxar, Airbus, SI Imaging, BlackSky Global, ICEYE, SpaceView, and Capella. There are numerous channels through which these companies may be sharing their data with Ukraine other than those identified in the letter, but it is clear that Ukraine understands the value of commercial space: “We badly need the opportunity to watch the movement of Russian troops, especially at night when our technologies are blind…”

The impact commercial space data is having on the crisis is already evident. It is being used to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation, deliver insights on the 40-mile-long Russian convoy headed toward Kyiv, and characterize the extent of damage sustained across Ukraine. Perhaps most importantly and tragically, it is shining a spotlight on the growing humanitarian crisis faced by the citizens of Ukraine.

Many of the commercial space capabilities being used to support Ukraine were enabled by the more than $25 billion in venture capital  invested in space startup companies over the past seven years. This capital has funded the development of optical imaging satellites, radio frequency sensing satellites, and synthetic aperture radar satellites, among other space technologies. While they have enabled 24/7 monitoring and public proof of the Russian atrocities occurring in Ukraine, the day-to-day applications for these satellites are not just governmental in nature:  they include applications in agriculture, energy, financial services, logistics and other sectors.

Some have argued that space technology does not deserve our time and attention and that earthly pursuits are more important. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made clear that commercial space technologies are accelerating the ongoing diffusion of power, increasing transparency between governments and their people, lowering the barrier of access to once privileged information, and improving the world’s ability to hold authoritarians to account. These trends help create a more open, democratic society grounded in truth. Ongoing investment in space-based capabilities by both governmental and commercial entities is integral to a modern free society.

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