Tag Archives: satellite imagery

Hunting Down Polluters from Space

When scanning for emissions from a mud volcano in western Turkmenistan in January 2019, a satellite called Claire came across a large plume of methane drifting across the landscape. … The company operating the satellite, GHGSAT passed details via diplomats to officials in Turkmenistan, and after a few months the leaks stopped. This largely unknown incident illustrates two things: that satellites can play an important role in spotting leaks of greenhouse gases and, rather worryingly, that the extent of such leaks is often greatly underestimated. The data from Claire suggested the leak in Turkmenistan had been a big one…142,000 tonnes of methane. This made the Turkmenistani leak far bigger than the 97,000 tonnes of methane discharged over four months by a notorious blowout at a natural-gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2015, which is reckoned to have been the worst natural-gas leak yet recorded in America. There have been other big leaks, too…

The reason for concern is that although methane, the main constituent of natural gas, does not linger in the atmosphere for anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide does, it is a far more potent heat-trapping agent. About a quarter of man-made global warming is thought to be caused by methane. And between a fifth and a third of the methane involved is contributed by the oil and gas industry. Methane can be detected spectroscopically. Like other gases, it absorbs light at characteristic frequencies. With a spectrometer mounted on a satellite it is possible to analyse light reflected from Earth for signs of the gas. As with the satellites that carry them, spectrometers come in many shapes and sizes. Tropomi can also detect the spectral signs of other polluting gases, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Other methane-hunting satellites are coming. These include one due for launch in 2022 by Methanesat, an affiliate of the Environmental Defence Fund, an American non-profit organisation. The 350kg satellite will cost $88m to build and put into orbit. It will scan an area of land 200km wide with a resolution of 1km by 1km. According to Methanesat, it will be the most sensitive to emission levels yet, being able to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts-per-billion. Data collected by the satellite will be publicly available.

Excerpts from The Methane Hunters, Economist, Feb. 1 2020

Poker and Blackjack: How to Make War in Space

In March 2018, India became only the fourth country in the world—after Russia, the US, and China—to successfully destroy a satellite in orbit. Mission Shakti, as it was called, was a demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)—or in plain English, a missile launched from the ground. Typically this type of ASAT has a “kill vehicle,” essentially a chunk of metal with its own guidance system, mounted on top of a ballistic missile. Shortly after the missile leaves the atmosphere, the kill vehicle detaches from it and makes small course corrections as it approaches the target. No explosives are needed; at orbital speeds, kinetic energy does the damage…. China’s own first successful ASAT test was in 2007….

But going to war in space… doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations.  Satellites are, after all, computers that happen to be in space, so they are vulnerable to attacks that disable or hijack them, just like their terrestrial peers.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could have done so but chose not to. Nor is it clear who was behind the attack, although some commentators at the time pointed the finger at China. Experts warn that hackers could shut off a satellite’s communications, rendering it useless. Or they could permanently damage it by burning off all its propellant or pointing its imaging sensor at the sun to burn it out.

Another common mode of attack is to jam or spoof satellite signals. There is nothing fancy about this: it’s easier than hacking, and all the gear required is commercially available.  Jammers, often mounted on the back of trucks, operate at the same frequency as GPS or other satellite communication systems to block their signals. …There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground…. Russia also seems to use spoofing as a way of protecting critical infrastructure,,,.As well as being hard to pin on anyone, jamming and spoofing can sow doubt in an enemy’s mind about whether they can trust their own equipment when needed. The processes can also be switched off at any time, which makes attribution even harder.

The 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent…In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

“It’s happening all the time at this low level,” says Harrison. “It’s more gray-zone aggression. Countries are pushing the limits of accepted behavior and challenging norms. They’re staying below the threshold of conflict.”..

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically….Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

As the dominant player in space for decades, the US now has the most to lose. The DIA report points out that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to give space warfare a far more central role. In response, the US military is starting to make satellites tougher to find and attack. For instance, the NTS-3, a new experimental GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have programmable, steerable antennas that can broadcast at higher power to counter jamming. It’s designed to remain accurate even if it loses its connection with ground controllers, and to detect efforts to jam its signal.

Another solution is not just to make single satellites more resilient, but to use constellations in which any one satellite is not that important. That’s the thinking behind Blackjack, a new DARPA program to create a cheap network of military communications satellites in low Earth orbit.

Excerpts from Niall Firth How to fight a war in space (and get away with it), MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2019

If You Control Space, You Control Everything: Space as War Domain

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power.  If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons.  According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.

Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.  China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC)  is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.

“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”

Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 2019

Small Satellites-Big Data

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

Slavery Markets for Kids

Crowdsourcing project Tomnod (part of the DigitalGlobe company) is working with the public-private partnership The Global Fund to End Slavery to produce accurate and public data on slavery.More than 20,000 children are forced into slavery on Lake Volta, Ghana, the International Labour Organization estimates.They work 19-hour days and carry out dangerous tasks which leave many disabled, disfigured or even dead, campaigners say. Yet the size of the lake, 8,500  square kilometres (3,280 sq miles), makes it difficult to map from the ground and provide an exact figure of the number of child slaves, said Caitlyn Milton at Tomnod, part of the satellite company DigitalGlobe..  More than 10,000 volunteers have contributed to the campaign since it launched in mid-October 2015.

Although child labour is illegal in Ghana, thousands of children are sent away by parents who believe traffickers’ promises of an education and a better life.  In reality, children as young as four years old risk their lives diving into the lake’s murky waters to untangle nets, and end up working in such horrendous conditions that many die.  For other parents, selling some of their children into slavery is the only way to feed the rest of their family.  The average couple in the Lake Volta region earns little over $2,000 a year, meaning that a family with eight children will have only $2 a week – the price of a loaf of bread – to feed each child, according to The Global Fund to End Slavery….

“Unfortunately you don’t have to look hard to find children working on the lake, but it takes a lot to mount rescue operations that are backed up by the long-term support necessary to ensure children are not retrafficked,” Kofi Annan said.  Yet hard data could increase the government’s efforts to end slavery, by prosecuting traffickers and providing social support so that there is somewhere for children to escape to, he added.

Tomnod has run other projects including monitoring illegal fishing in Costa Rica and locating elephant poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

Excerpts from Eyes in the sky: online “mappers” track child slavery in Ghana, Reuters, Oct. 28, 2015