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News Link • Space Travel and Exploration

Pint-Size Satellites Promise Spy-Quality Images--Cheap

• Bloomberg - Ashlee Vance

For decades, spy agencies have had access to a magic-seeming technology known as SAR, or synthetic aperture radar. A satellite with SAR onboard can send radar beams from space that bounce off Earth and then return to a sensor, which assembles the information to produce an immaculate image. The key to the technology—what separates it from high-powered optical telescopes—is that the beams can pass through clouds and work at night. They make the invisible visible.


A young company in Palo Alto called Capella Space, which announced $12 million in new funding on May 9, has figured out a way to create much smaller, cheaper versions of SAR satellites. If the technology lives up to its billing, it would make this type of imaging available to businesses, not just governments. The idea is that hedge funds, farmers, city planners, and others would buy the pictures to track changes in the world around them. "We're going after hourly images of anywhere on Earth that people care about," says Payam Banazadeh, Capella's co-founder and chief executive officer.


Researchers in the U.S. began developing SAR after World War II with military applications in mind. Lockheed Martin Corp. claims to have built the first operational version in the '50s. Since then, SAR has largely remained in the realm of espionage and military strategy. A typical satellite can be the size of a bus, weigh 2,500 pounds, and cost as much as $500 million.


SAR satellites are big and expensive because they need a lot of power to send a radar beam 300 miles to Earth and a large antenna to pick up the returning signal. Capella uses cheap, powerful consumer electronics, artificial intelligence algorithms, and modern control software to get a constellation of satellites working as a unit.


Each Capella satellite is about the size of a beach ball, weighs almost 100 pounds, and can produce black-and-white images at 1-meter resolution, about what you'd get with the military models. The goal is to put up 36 of these satellites and have them monitor such things as ports, oil-storage centers, and cities. Because radar sees more than a camera does, Capella's satellites can detect the moisture levels of a farm's soil and determine, for example, if a truck drove across a dirt road at night. "You will see that the ground was compacted maybe 1 or 2 millimeters," Banazadeh says. "The path of that truck will light up superbright in the picture."

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