Cork stretched from the Russian city of Belgorod to the border with Ukraine. Google Maps marked traffic jams in red and orange, as they do in all countries where the application is used to track traffic. But the GPS satellites sending these cars’ coordinates to Google didn’t pick up on the usual traffic jam. It was 40 kilometers of movement caused by Russian troops.
The convoy turned out to be an early warning that Russian troops amassed near Ukraine’s borders were on the move. It was the first noticed at 3:15 a.m. Thursday last week, Geoffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies (MIIS), a graduate school in California, hours before reports of the first explosions in Ukraine were leaked to the news. But I didn’t stumble across it by accident. Lewis received a tip from a radar image taken by the commercial satellite company Capella Space, which showed Russian troops lined up along a road near Belgorod. “When the Russians set up camp for a long time, they park their tanks in the square and put up tents,” says Lewis.
But in this satellite image, the troops are depicted in a completely different formation. There were no tents; they were ready to move. When one of Lewis’s colleagues began to look for the routes of this convoy towards Ukraine, he discovered a traffic jam. “It’s really a story about merging different types of data,” says Lewis.
Then, on February 28, Google said it will temporarily turn off traffic updates in Ukraine “after consulting with several sources on the ground, including local authorities.” Google hasn’t specified why it’s worried about this feature. But the researchers suggest the company is concerned that traffic data revealing the whereabouts of troops or refugees could be used to inform military strikes. “You can see why Google doesn’t want to be involved in providing targeting data in an international conflict,” says Lewis.
There are about 50 active satellites in the skies over Ukraine now, according to Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas. These satellites have become a key part of Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion. The local government has asked for satellite imagery to see where Russian troops might be heading next.
The U.S. government has gifted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a satellite phone so they can stay in touch. according to CNN. And Ukraine also flies on the drones of the Turkish company Bayraktar, which allows you to control some of its models remotely through satellite connection. But Ukraine’s reliance on commercial satellites raises concerns about the power they give to the companies that control them, as well as the risk of bringing satellite companies into conflict.
This is not “the world’s first satellite war”. This name was given to the Gulf War three decades ago. Since then, space has become a regular part of modern conflicts, says Almudena Azcarate Ortega, a research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). “In recent years, there has been a trend to outsource much of this work due to the fact that private companies have specialized knowledge and are often better able to develop and deploy certain types of space technologies,” says Ortega, adding that many space objects are now called “ dual purpose.” “This means that one satellite can be used for both military purposes and civilian day-to-day operations,” she says.
At this time of the year, the sky of Ukraine is covered with clouds. Companies are now in high demand if they can produce data called radars that work at night and can see through clouds. Radar images are generated by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites, which map the world in the same way that bats navigate in the dark – by sending out radio waves and measuring how their signals bounce back. To do their job, open source researchers like Lewis buy radar data from San Francisco-based companies like Capella and Planet. They also have to pay for software such as ENVIto interpret this radar data and turn it into images. He adds that his team’s ability to use the software is the result of years of training. “Three years ago we would not have been able to do this.”
These data are required not only by open source researchers. The military wants it too. “We really need the ability to observe the movement of Russian troops, especially at night when our technology is blind,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov said on March 1. letter Posted on Twitter, Fedorov called on eight commercial satellite companies to send SAR satellite data to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces see Russian troop movements through the clouds. One of the companies that responded was Capella. Its founder and CEO, Payam Banazade, says the company provides satellite imagery of Ukraine to both the Ukrainian government and the US governments.
“We have opportunities that governments don’t have,” Banazadeh says. He brushes aside questions about maintaining neutrality in the conflict. “We are a private commercial company and anyone can – as long as we have images – buy them from us,” he says. “But other than that, we are an American company and we don’t play politics or politics. We have created commercial opportunities that anyone in the world can truly access.”
But some researchers worry that reliance on satellite imagery has given too much power to the companies that control the technology. “There are companies like Maxar and Planet that are privately owned and they have the final say on whether they want to share information or not,” says Anuradha Damale, a research fellow at the British American Security Information Council think tank. . “Will we trust these organizations to act this way in every conflict, given that they may have military contracts with specific countries?”
The role of private companies in conflicts like Ukraine means that commercial satellites can be targeted. Days before the Russian invasion, US space officials warned satellite companies that the conflict could spread into space. “Make sure your systems are secured and that you monitor them very closely because we know the Russians are effective cyber actors,” National Intelligence Agency Director Chris Scholes said at a National Space Security Association conference on Feb. 23. say how far they are going to go to achieve their goals, but it is better to be prepared than surprised.”
These attacks can take the form of cyberattacks or fakewhen a radio transmitter is used to spoof the GPS signal. Russia has been one of the few countries to openly showcase its spoofing capabilities, says Humphreys of the University of Texas. “They are creating all sorts of problems in the Mediterranean because of the spoofing they are doing in Syria,” he says, adding that it was causing problems for Israeli aircraft flying to Tel Aviv. Humphreys says that Russia is not trying to disable Israeli planes, but is trying to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. swarm of drones who attacked its Khmeimim airbase in Syria in 2018. “So they send out jamming and spoofing signals to confuse the drones’ GPS receivers,” says Humphreys.
But Russia not only deceived the satellites in order to strengthen its defenses, but also practiced blowing them up. In November, the country held rocket test on one of its own satellites, raising the possibility that the satellites could eventually become physical targets. Capella’s Banazadeh does not see his company as being directly threatened by its meddling in Ukraine’s affairs. “Is it something that keeps us awake at night? No, he says. “We are aware of this and have made sure that the company and the satellites are protected? Yes.”
Another company that could be targeted for attacks is Elon Musk’s Starlink. delivered terminals to Ukraine with the idea that they could provide a back-up Internet connection if the country’s network infrastructure were damaged by the fighting. However, businesses are unlikely to announce publicly whether their satellites have been tampered with or jammed, says Reiner Horn, managing partner at German consultancy SpaceTec Partners, adding that he has not heard of any recent attacks.
But with violence intensifying in Ukraine, researchers suspect satellites have already been targeted — we just don’t know it yet. “Given the way Putin is moving right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he considers it or has already done so,” Damale says.
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