New satellite can see through the walls of some buildings

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Capella Space offers SAR satellite imagery that can see through buildings.
Image: Capella Space

Satellite technology has improved dramatically in the past few years. However, almost all satellites that take pictures of the Earth do so with optical image sensors. While that’s great for capturing photos of terrain and buildings, the technology is limited by things like cloud cover and trees.

A company called Capella Space is taking a unique approach to satellite imagery. It uses synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to capture images with incredibly detailed resolution. The satellites can reportedly even see through the walls of some buildings.

Snapshot

At any given time, about half of the world is in darkness and half of it is covered in clouds. Capella Space CEO Payam Banazadeh told Futurism, “When you combine those two together, about 75 percent of Earth, at any given time, is going to be cloudy, nighttime, or it’s going to be both.”

For satellite imagery, that’s a major challenge. When the target area is hidden beneath clouds or shrouded in darkness, it can be impossible to capture a good picture. Capella’s SAR satellites sidestep both of these obstacles by operating like a bat’s echolocation. Each of the company’s satellites sends 9.65GHz radio signals down towards the target.

Then, the satellite collects the returning signals to create a picture of what is there. “At that frequency, the clouds are pretty much transparent,” Banazadeh tells Futurism. “You can penetrate clouds, fog, moisture, smoke, haze. Those things don’t matter anymore. And because you’re generating your own signal, it’s as if you’re carrying a flashlight. You don’t care if it’s day or night.”

Interestingly, clouds aren’t the only thing that SAR imagery can see through. Capella notes that the technology can peer directly through the walls of some buildings. This means a picture could reveal the floorplan of a house or a collection of planes in a hangar at the airport.

Obviously, the ability to see through walls raises some privacy concerns. Considering Capella’s business model, those questions are even more pressing.

Imagery for All

Many public satellite firms still operate with dated business models. Customers have to email (or even fax) requests when they’d like a custom image. Capella hopes to modernize the satellite industry by making it easy for customers to request images of target locations.

Those customers can be just about anyone. From government agencies to individuals, the company’s SAR imagery will be widely accessible. There are plenty of reasons why someone would want to purchase a custom satellite image.

Of course, military applications are obvious. Governments could use SAR imagery to track hostile forces or peer into an enemy base. However, Capella highlights a number of other uses that could be interesting.

For instance, researchers could request images of the Amazon rainforest to monitor things like deforestation and illegal logging. Since SAR can see through the dense clouds that typically cover the area, Capella’s imaging technology would be a major asset.

Meanwhile, the company says that savvy investors could utilize its technology to monitor global supply chains and commodities. By combining the imaging capabilities of multiple satellites, Capella is able to construct three-dimensional pictures.

Banazadeh mentions that one group is using that strategy to monitor oil storage in open-top tanks and mines. From there, the group can analyze the images to determine the trending values of oil and other commodities.

In an interview with Futurism the CEO said, “We’re making it very easy for people with all sorts of backgrounds to interact with a company like us, and that inevitably is going to bring more users that previously couldn’t access this market. That’s our hope.”

Banazadeh adds, “You don’t have to be a SAR expert to look at this imagery and not only appreciate it but also extract really useful information from it, which is what we were going for from the beginning.”

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how Capella is able to shake up the satellite imaging industry. With its advanced SAR technology, it is already making waves. As more customers take note, the company could revolutionize what it means to have eyes in space.

Playing by the Rules

Despite the semi-invasive nature of SAR imaging, there aren’t many restrictions on how the technology can be used. Capella’s satellites can currently capture images at a resolution of 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters per pixel. That is much more detailed than most satellite images. Non-SAR competitors can only create images with a resolution of five meters per pixel.

Capella’s image resolution is already very impressive. However, the company isn’t stopping there. Banazadeh notes that Capella plans to launch several additional satellites in the future. Six are slated for a 2021 launch.

With more satellites in orbit, Capella will technically be able to create images with even better resolution. However, legal limits will keep the company in check. Under U.S. law, Capella is already creating the most detailed images is it allowed to.

So long as it doesn’t improve its resolution beyond this point, it is legally allowed to image any part of the world. That means paying customers can request photos of any location on Earth—even private targets like the inside of an office or someone’s home.

It will be interesting to see if any sort of regulation stems from this. It’s hard to imagine that Capella will be allowed to provide images of these private spaces to just anyone, but as it stands right now, the company is free to do so.

Purchase Order

On Wednesday, Capella launched a platform that allows anyone to request an image of anything in the world. It becomes the first U.S. company to offer SAR satellite imagery to the public. Moreover, it is the first in the world to offer customers an easy-to-use platform to request satellite images.

At this point, it remains unclear how much it will cost to purchase SAR satellite photos from Capella. Although the service is technically available to anyone, it will likely be far too expensive for anyone other than the very wealthy and businesses.

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