Cobertura del conflicto en Ucrania, Blacksky cambió las órbitas de sus satélites

Cuando Rusia invadió Ucrania en febrero 2022, la empresa de sensado remoto BLACKSKY, adoptó una «decisión de negocio»: el cambio de las órbitas de dos de sus nuevos satélites. La constelación completa puede obtener imágenes y presenta una resolución temporal de una hora en latitudes medias (20 a 60 grados, norte y sur del ecuador) y una resolución de aproximadamente 1 metro. La firma tiene previsto lanzar el próximo año, una nueva generación de satélites que tendrá una resolución media de unos 50 centímetros, e incluirá un sensor infrarrojo de onda corta, que podrá capturar algunas imágenes por la noche. El CEO de la empresa afirmó que BlackSky utiliza inteligencia artificial (IA) para fusionar sus datos satelitales con otros datos de sensores, como los de los satélites de radar de apertura sintética (SAR) que pueden «ver» a través de las nubes, una capacidad importante sobre Ucrania en el invierno.

WASHINGTON: When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, remote sensing firm BlackSky made a “business decision” to change the planned orbits of its two newest satellites to better keep tabs on the war — even though they were scheduled to blast off just about a month later, CEO Brian O’Toole told Breaking Defense.

“It is a big deal because multiple processes are involved,” he said. “It’s pretty significant, in the time at which we were able to make this pivot and then actually deploy it and make it happen.”

The move including acquiring a revised license from the US government, O’Toole explained, no easy feat as that process usually takes months or even years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in charge of remote sensing licensing and regulation for the Department of Commerce.

It also meant working through the technical details with launch provider RocketLab to allow BlackSky to put the satellites “in an orbit that would maximize our collection capacity,” O’Toole said.

Despite the hurdles, those two satellites went up on April 2, bringing BlackSky’s electro-optical (using visible-light cameras) constellation to 14 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The new birds have an inclined orbit at a slightly higher latitude than the rest of the constellation, O’Toole said, which allows them to spend more time over Ukraine and Russia.

And, significantly, customers were receiving imagery and analytical products from Ukraine within 24 hours of the launch, according to a company press release.

The full constellation can image from dawn to dusk, providing an hourly revisit rate over mid-latitudes (20 to 60 degrees, north and south of the equator) and a resolution of about 1 meter. The firm is planning to launch a new generation of satellites next year that will have an average resolution of about 50 centimeters, and include a short-wave infrared sensor that will be able to capture some images at night.

O’Toole said BlackSky uses artificial intelligence (AI) to fuse its satellite data with other sensor data, such as that from synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites that can “see” through clouds — an important capability over Ukraine in the winter.

BlackSky’s Spectra AI platform also is used to task its own constellation to collect and analyze insights on economic activity, patterns of life, or other areas of interest at the demand of customers. Using the automated system, customers can then receive tasked imagery and information within 90 minutes, the press release said.

It is the combination of BlackSky’s high revisit rate and the use of AI for “delivery on demand” that is key for BlackSky’s future market, O’Toole explained. “Those two things combined are what we’re driving towards: providing this first-to-know advantage right through high revisit, speedy delivery with the data fusion and AI capability to deliver insights. I think that’s ultimately gonna unlock the larger market opportunity, because all these customers just want the answers.”

BlackSky already is one of three electro-optical imagery providers, along with Maxar Technologies and Planet, currently under short-term contract with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The spy-sat agency now intends to issue new contracts this summer for what it calls its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer.

“We’re standing by and looking forward to that,” O’Toole said. “As the government has outlined, the commercial companies have really stepped up in the Ukraine. We have played a significant part of that.”

This includes not just providing imagery to the US and international governments, but also to commercial companies and humanitarian organizations, he noted. “We’re very proud of that, and are continuing to provide that support.”

But NRO is by far from the only customer interested in the company’s capabilities, as US military interest in obtaining tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) from satellites — that is, near real-time information that commanders can use in the heat of battle — has skyrocketed, O’Toole said.

“We’re talking to a lot of different organizations in the government — Space Force, the Army, the Air Force — many that are looking at how you could leverage commercial technologies and tactical ISR,” he said. “We’ve been really heavily engaged and pushing ourselves for that part of the market.”