SAR Satellite Systems: Perspective on the year ahead

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2021 has the makings for a stellar year in the remote sensing satellite industry, and for synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems in particular. To spotlight new developments, we’ll be periodically posting entries—like this one—to share the thoughts and insights of Adam Maher, SAR satellite industry expert and CEO of Ursa Space Systems. 

From Adam’s perspective, the year ahead will be a time of building for the SAR community. The commercial SAR satellite ecosystem is made up of multiple elements, including the satellites themselves, the rockets that launch them, the networks that relay satellite data, and the analytics used to extract and decipher meaning. Adam points out that “while initial capabilities for each of these individual elements are already in place, after many years in development, they are starting to come together in ways that will create major gains.”

This is heartening, given the mixed economic effects COVID has had on the industry. Restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus have impacted vulnerable satellite and rocket supply chains, resulting in delays in launch schedules. For many start-up stage commercial SAR satellite companies, these slow-downs along with funding setbacks have been painful.

Nonetheless, the demand for geospatial-derived insights and imagery is now greater than ever before, as businesses and governments seek to understand the pandemic’s effects on manufacturing, construction and transportation trends. SAR’s unique all-weather, 24 hour-a-day imaging capabilities make it particularly effective for detecting these types of physical changes over time. Ursa Space’s automotive activity index, provides an interesting example of how SAR can be used to derive insights into industry trends.

As new advancements in each of the major areas of the SAR satellite ecosystem come together in 2021, Adam is optimistic that the capabilities of all these elements working together will create new exciting opportunities for the industry.

1. Satellites – Pushing new design limits

The community of SAR providers is introducing new satellite designs, many of which are expanding the limits of resolution and small satellite size. This year, established provider ICEYE will offer resolution as high as 25 cm. New providers are poised to expand accessibility. The Japanese startup Synspective launched its first satellite in late 2020. A number of U.S. companies are also making moves. Capella recently launched its first operational satellite, offering 50 cm resolution. Umbra will bring unique, low-cost access to high (25 cm) resolution imagery via its soon-to-be-launched compact and lightweight microsatellites. Predasar also has plans to launch its first SAR satellite in the first quarter of 2021, with eventual plans to reach 48 satellites in total. 

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In fact, each of these companies has plans for expanded constellations. As they vie to build and operate the world’s most advanced commercial SAR satellite constellation—whether that be in terms of size, tasking speed, revisit rate, or image resolution—there’s an atmosphere of healthy competition that will no doubt lead to improved capabilities.

2. Rockets – Expanding launch access

As Adam aptly points out, “from a revenue generation standpoint, satellite companies don’t make money until their satellites are in orbit.” Fortunately, rocket improvements are making launches more accessible, both in terms of cost and frequency. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has paved the way for reusable rockets, and Rocket Lab is making great progress in developing its own system to reuse rocket boosters. Astra, another private U.S. space company, recently entered the scene with the offer of small, frequent launches, and many other rocket companies are following suit. Across the rocket industry, the option of rideshares with other payloads has made it easier than ever for satellite companies to launch their technologies into space. 

3. Relay networks – More options are on the horizon

In order to get data from the satellites down to earth, new and expanded types of networks, relay satellites and ground stations are being developed. The changes being made are expected to benefit SAR providers, by improving their ability to provide high quality images with fewer delays in transmitting tasking orders. 

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4. Analytics – Advancing approaches for deeper insights

SAR data is rich in information, but also complicated. Adam explains that to take advantage of the increasing volume of SAR data coming from an ever-growing number of satellites, companies are turning to automated, artificial intelligence (AI)-based methods. This is Ursa Space Systems’ sweet spot. As a radar-as-a-service company, we analyze satellite imagery and provide scalable analytic solutions while pushing the boundaries of scale and timeliness. 

In Adam’s view, “In combination, all of these new capabilities are creating more data, new insights and SAR-related opportunities that will benefit government and commercial customers alike. This especially applies to timely change detection. The idea is to develop SAR into an integral and accessible solution that can meet a variety of customer needs, across industry verticals.” The value that SAR has to offer is only just beginning to be understood—and that, in itself, is exciting.

Jodie Mangor