United States is Behind in Commercial Earth Observation — But We Can Change That

Believe it or not, U.S. does not have any commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites. Germany, Italy, and Canada are the leaders of commercial SAR and U.S. has been watching from the sidelines for the past 11 years. We, as a nation, gave away our leadership with regulations that limited innovation and commercial development of this technology. There is a real opportunity to change that in 2018 with Capella satellites and this time around regulators are listening — or at least some of them are.

What is SAR and why does it matter? SAR is a unique imaging technique that allows for penetration through the clouds as well as night imaging. Given that 75% of Earth at any given time is either covered with clouds and/or is night, SAR imaging is a crucial tool for persistent monitoring of our planet. Furthermore, SAR captures both amplitude and phase history which allows the imagery to be used for identifying material properties, moisture, and very precise changes and movements. In another words, SAR images are not just static images, they are computational data that can be manipulated to directly extract highly valuable information that otherwise is not apparent in optical images.

Night SAR image of Black Rock City (Burning Man) in 2011, by TerraSAR-X. Note the outside perimeters arre clearly visible as a Pentagon. Copyright: DLR e.V. 2011.

This makes SAR a critical tool for remote sensing and observing our planet from space. Most people, including insiders of this industry, are not well aware of SAR’s potentials. However, there is a thriving community of SAR scientists and analysts that have been working with this type of imagery for a long time within the intelligence community (IC). The IC fully understands the advantages of SAR and its potential — especially if it were to be accessible, inexpensive, and persistent. That is exactly what we are doing at Capella Space and why we believe in the game changing nature of our work.

However, the history of SAR is a bit of a mystery. It might come as a surprise but as mentioned at the beginning United States does not own any commercial SAR satellites. Capella’s satellite will be the first truly commercial American SAR satellite. All of U.S. SAR satellites are part of classified missions owned and operated by the U.S. government.

There are many reasons behind why U.S. does not have any commercial SAR satellites, among those are regulatory limitations that have existed as well as the cost barrier of building a SAR satellite especially given that the commercial market is still in its infancy. Historically U.S. regulators have intentionally blocked U.S. companies from launching commercial SAR satellites. Out of fear, regulators have argued that the extensive capabilities of SAR should remain in hands of only the IC and therefore considered this a “national security” problem (another indicator of how powerful SAR can actually be).” However, as we know now, this was a wrong decision that has cost U.S. the leadership in commercial SAR. Some of the Senators were even vocal and warned us on the consequences of such regulations.

In 1997 Former Sen. Dennis DeConcini noted “No U.S. Company has been licensed to sell high resolution radar imagery. If Commerce does not license a radar satellite system, then a foreign owned radar system, with a one meter or less capability, will enter the market leaving the U.S. government with no effective control in this area.”

A year later in 1998 Former Sen. Tom Daschle wrote to the Pentagon noting, “If currently proposed restrictions on U.S. commercial remote sensing satellites are not revised, the capabilities of foreign SAR systems will quickly exceed those of the United States.”

In 2007 that is exactly what happened. Germany’s TerraSAR-X and Italy’s COSMO-Skymed were launched with better than 1-meter capability. Regulators realized they had underestimated other countries capabilities to build SAR satellites and that it was a mistake to limit commercial SAR within U.S.. Today we depend on Germans, Italians, and Canadians to purchase millions of dollars of SAR imagery from their commercial SAR satellites. It is not easy, it is not cheap, it is not as secure as the IC likes it to be, and there are serious limitations on working with these foreign companies — even though they are all from friendly and allied countries.

Besides from the commercial & civil applications of a commercial SAR constellation the United States government will tremendously benefit from a U.S. owned and operated SAR constellation. The United States is increasingly undertaking military, humanitarian and disaster relief missions in coalition with like-minded partner nations. These multinational efforts have become a pillar of U.S. security policy. Coalition actions that share mission costs and responsibilities among partner forces are preferable over unilateral strategies. The key to the success of such coalition actions is effective communication at all levels of operations and that inevitably requires the exchange of critical information including geospatial intelligence. Therefore unclassified commercial geospatial intelligence is critical to these coalition operations.

We at Capella are excited to launch the first American commercial SAR satellite this year. However, not all of the regulators have learned the valuable lesson over the last 11 years. There is friction, there is a lot of work, and there are many doubts. Regulators can either continue to block and limit U.S. companies at the expense of foreign companies continuing to lead, or take a progressive step forward and welcome companies like Capella by not making the process unnecessarily difficult, burdensome, limiting, and complicated. The fact of the matter is that other countries are launching commercial SAR satellites that can do higher resolution with additional capabilities. By limiting U.S. companies not only we are not protecting our “national security”, in fact, we are actively weakening our nation’s position at the international stage when it comes to Earth Observation.

Let us all work together for the change and finally bring SAR home.

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Payam Banazadeh

Entrepreneur, CEO @ Capella Space, and recently an amateur blogger of life and experiences.