A satellite carrying a camera that is so powerful it can capture an image of virtually any object on Earth with crystal-clear resolution is now offering its services to the public.
The Capella-2 satellite, developed by San Francisco-based Capella Space, uses synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology to obtain super-sharp photos for use by military, environmental, energy and law enforcement sources.
Even regular folks can sign up online to have a photo taken of any spot on the planet (provided they first obtain clearance from the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations).
With a capacity to identify objects as small as 50 cm x 50 cm (roughly 20 inches x 20 inches), Capella’s breakthrough technology makes it the highest-resolution satellite camera in the world.
It exceeds the resolutions of its nearest competition – there are few competitors in the field of SAR photography – which can identify only those objects no smaller than about five meters, or just under 200 inches.
One way Capella differs from all competition using SAR and regular optical photographic processing is that images can be captured day or night, and regardless of weather conditions.
“It turns out that half of the world is in nighttime, and half of the world, on average, is cloudy,” said CEO Payam Banazadeh, a former system engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “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.”
Banazadeh said his goal for the past four years of research was to create “a new tool for humanitarian work and human progress.” Capella 2, he said, “allows us to monitor our planet in all-weather and in all-light conditions and to do so reliably and transparently.”
Interestingly, Banazadeh was motivated by tragedy. He said he was frustrated with agonizingly slow global efforts to track down the wreckage of Malaysian Air Flight 370 that killed all 239 aboard after it mysteriously disappeared in 2014. No cause was ever confirmed.
“Governments around the world sent ships and vessels to look for this plane, and the tragedy took forever to play out,” Banazadeh said. “I remember watching TV and thinking, ‘We’ve failed as Homo sapiens if a massive plane has gone missing with 280 fellow human beings on it and we have no idea where it went missing, what happened, and what’s going on.'”
He said three is a need “to do better at tracking things” and to “be better at understanding the planet we live on.”
One satellite is in orbit now, but the company plans to launch two more aboard SpaceX in the near future. Government contracts, including one with the U.S. Navy, will soon bring several more to the fleet.
Early reports this week erroneously indicated the Capella is so powerful it can see through buildings. Banazadeh quickly took to social media to put that rumor to rest.
“Vaccines don’t contain microchips and SAR can’t see through walls into your living room!!!” He said in a Twitter post Friday.
But it is powerful enough to monitor wildfires, oil dredging operations, regions devastated by climate change and illegal poaching.
“SAR allows us, our first responders, our policy makers, and the world to see,” Banazadeh said. “That is critical.”
Why does the world need high resolution SAR data now?
When I started Capella almost four and a half years ago the goal was to build a new tool for humanitarian work and human progress globally.
A tool that allows us to monitor our planet in all-weather and in all-light conditions and to do so reliably and transparently. My initial frustration was over the disappearance of the MH370 flight and our inability to locate it – despite decades of investment in Earth observation and tracking technologies.
The conclusion was that we need to do better, better in Earth observation, better in tracking things, and better at understanding the planet we live on. Consequently, in order to understand our planet better we need to monitor it more reliably and more frequently.
Looking at the global events of the last four years since we started this journey, I think this capability has never been more needed than today. One of the most recent events that could have used our capability were the millions of acres of the West Coast of the United States that were devastated by wildfires and completely blanketed a third of our country in hazardous opaque smoke.
If we can’t see what’s happening around us, we can’t make good decisions. SAR allows us, our first responders, our policy makers, and the world to see. That is critical.
And today with our very high-resolution Spot mode we have brought a new perspective to the world, one that allows non-SAR users to visually utilize SAR imagery better than before.
How did we do this?
I am particularly proud of the fact that Capella-2 (our first operational satellite) is an in-house creation built by a group of less than 100 engineers over the course of the last few years. We had to build our own satellite because no existing satellite could do what we wanted to do. Capella-2 is a revolutionary satellite that will forever change how we collect imagery from space and how we monitor our planet. This is a big win for our industry.
It is the result of 4 years of ingenuity, hard work, creativity, and commitment to the cause. Through numerous iterations on this brand-new design, we launched a successful prototype satellite in 2018, ultimately leading to our highly capable operational satellite today.
All of that has brought us a satellite that in many ways is challenging and disrupting the status-quo while building a new category. A 107 kg satellite that is small on the ground but humongous in space.
With this design we are able to do more with less — literally. We can collect high quality and high-resolution imagery that was once only thought possible with satellites designed and built by governments and giant corporations, often taking ten or more years to develop, at costs well into the hundreds of millions.
To get a sense of the complexities involved with our satellite and delivery system you have to look at what has gone into Capella-2, a 107kg microsatellite. When launched into orbit it is merely as large as a small washing machine. Once Capella-2 is deployed on orbit it transforms itself by deploying a boom the length of a minivan and unfurls a high gain antenna the size of a small bedroom.
From a washing machine to a bedroom, this tiny but mighty satellite has more than 400 meters of cables and wiring connecting more than 100 individual boards and electronics, with complex software running in the background built with over 250,000 lines of C code, over 10,000 lines of Python code, and over 500,000 lines of FPGA code.
The ground software that allows our team to interact with the satellite in space has over 850,000 lines of code and is deployed across 5 continents in remote places and giant data centers. The whole system is nothing short of remarkable.
How can Capella customers request and collect imagery?
Easy! With all the complexities that have gone into the satellite, the customer experience is elegant, easy, and straight forward. We made our user experience as simple as our hardware is complex, creating a frictionless flow of data from space to inform timely decisions on Earth. We didn’t build a satellite company to sell satellites to masses, we built a satellite company to bring earth observation to masses.
This is where our intuitive web application and API with fully automated order-to-delivery system comes in. Both the Capella Console web application and Capella API make it easy for customers to search our image library catalog or request new acquisitions via on-demand self-serve constellation tasking.
We made it so simple that all you have to do is login, define your area-of-interest, and search the existing catalog or submit a new acquisition tasking request. Once a new acquisition has been collected, automatically processed and delivered customers receive an alert so they can login and access the SAR imagery products in a timely manner. And it works — just like that!
Speaking on behalf of the entire Capella team, Capella-2’s success has energized and inspired our team to work even harder to realize our plans to use this exciting technology to help understand life on Earth. We are moving fast and are excited about what is coming next, including many more satellites that are in various stages of production and will launch over the coming months.
Until then, onward & upward and get in touch with us if you want to be part of the SAR revolution.
More information: www.capellaspace.com/capella-u … mercial-sar-imagery/