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Synthetic-Aperture Radar Tech Maps Disaster Relief’s Future

All-weather SAR satellites peer through clouds and smoke, expecting and inspecting Nature’s furies

4 min read
satellite over Earth

Japan-based Synspective has two synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites in orbit—with plans for a constellation of 30 such craft by 2026.


The synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) industry is currently experiencing a growth spurt. Satellite imaging companies like Capella Space and ICEYE are now expanding their offerings—including in the latter case, providing SAR imaging access to the government of Ukraine for national defense—while in the public sector, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office inked deals earlier this year with five SAR companies to develop solutions for radar imaging applications such as agriculture, energy, finance, and infrastructure.

In Japan, the need for SAR imaging is all the more pronounced for the archipelago's statistically excessive numbers of natural calamities. Whether it is earthquakes and tsunami, or typhoons, floods and volcanic eruptions, Japan unfortunately suffers frequently from them all. For central and regional governments to be able to promptly assess damages such as inundations, impassible roads, building collapse, and ash and lava deposits, Japanese space startup Synspective believes there is no better way than its upcoming 24-hour all-weather satellite imagery services based on synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Founded in 2018, the company is the recipient of small SAR satellite technology that came out of the Japanese government’s ImPACT program to develop high-end R&D technology. Synspective has two satellites in orbit with a third due to be launched mid-September from New Zealand by California-based Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

“Around 2026, we plan to have a constellation of 30 low Earth orbit SAR satellites,” says Toshihiro Obata, a director and general manager of Synspective, at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. (According to Obata, Synspective has received some US $200 million in private investment to date.) “Then we will be able to revisit and update images of a particular disaster anywhere in the world every two hours.”

Optical satellite images are created using lenses to capture reflected visible light from the ground and so can easily be obscured by inclement weather, lack of daylight, and clouds—estimated to cover nearly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. By contrast, SAR satellites, which are orbiting radars, send microwave pulses to illuminate the ground, the echoes of which are received back by antennae and used to build up 2D images or 3D reconstructions of areas. The longer wavelengths of microwaves enable them to penetrate clouds and smoke and be effective at night.

satellite photo of Changi Airport in SingaporeThis Synspective SAR “Stripmap” image, taken in December 2021, features Singapore’s Changi Airport. Mainly built on reclaimed land, Changi requires regular monitoring for possible subsidence, a potentially dangerous ground settling that SAR satellites can monitor from orbit.Synspective

“Small SAR systems should be understood as complementary to optical systems,” says Carlos Lopez-Martinez, associate professor at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona. “Nevertheless, SAR is the more reliable technology to acquire time series of images of the Earth’s surface, as data acquisition is almost independent of weather conditions.”

On the other hand, he notes there are also downsides. “Small satellites have very small capacity to take images due to reduced memory and the limited power available. This drawback may in part be solved by having large constellations,” says Lopez-Martinez.

Synspective’s two orbiting satellites weigh around 100 kilograms, while the next series of satellites will be larger and weigh 150 kg. “These second-generation satellites will have a bigger battery capacity so we can take more images and download them to ground stations faster,” says Obata. “Additional thrusters will also help us better maintain a constant altitude.”

The SAR satellites use two modes to collect surface image data. With the radar fixed, Stripmap mode illuminates a swath of ground up to 30 km in length using a continuous sequence of pulses, while in Sliding Spotlight mode, the radar beam is steered to illuminate a series of selected points over a 10-km range. Operating in the microwave X band and employing single-beam polarization (designated as “VV,” which means vertically transmitted and vertically received), the modes provide ground resolutions of 3 meters and 1 meter, respectively.

Via its two SAR satellites, Synspective can already offer some remote monitoring options, says Abhinandan Arya, vice president of Synspective’s applied science and solutions. To do this, Synspective adds its own data to SAR data made freely available from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 program, Japan’s space agency’s (JAXA) ALOS-2 mission, and by obtaining data from other commercial satellite missions. At present, Arya says, the company can provide land-displacement monitoring and flood-damage assessment, and it is developing applications for disaster-damage assessment, forestry-inventory management, and offshore-wind assessment.

Arya says the company uses its own software as well as third-party applications and open-source software such as the U.S. Geological Survey’s InSAR mapping technology. For example, Synspective has taken SAR images of Singapore’s Changi Airport. Since the airport is built mainly on reclaimed land, it requires frequent monitoring to identify any subsidence. Monitoring such land displacements, Arya says, reduces costs and time compared to conventional labor-intensive methods.However, with thousands of satellites from numerous space startups expected to be in orbit during the next several years, Synspective can expect stiff competition, at least overseas.

“Private companies launching small SAR satellites now have lower entry barriers, so the SAR market is growing," Lopez-Martinez says. "Capella Space, ICEYE,Spacety, and Umbra are just some of the companies Synspective can expect to have to compete with in the global market.”

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Europe Expands Virtual Borders To Thwart Migrants

Our investigation reveals that Europe is turning to remote sensing to detect seafaring migrants so African countries can pull them back

14 min read
A photo of a number of people sitting in a inflatable boat on the water with a patrol ship in the background.

Migrants in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on 28 February 2020.


It was after midnight in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone of the Mediterranean when a rubber boat originating from Libya carrying dozens of migrants encountered a hulking cargo ship from Madeira and a European military aircraft. The ship’s captain stopped the engines, and the aircraft flashed its lights at the rubber boat. But neither the ship nor the aircraft came to the rescue. Instead, Maltese authorities told the ship’s captain to wait for vessels from Malta to pick up the migrants. By the time those boats arrived, three migrants had drowned trying to swim to the idle ship.

The private, Malta-based vessels picked up the survivors, steamed about 237 kilometers south, and handed over the migrants to authorities in Libya, which was and is in the midst of a civil war, rather than return to Malta, 160 km away. Five more migrants died on the southward journey. By delivering the migrants there, the masters of the Maltese vessels, and perhaps the European rescue authorities involved, may have violated the international law of the sea, which requires ship masters to return people they rescue to a safe port. Instead, migrants returned to Libya over the last decade have reported enslavement, physical abuse, extortion, and murders while they try to cross the Mediterranean.

If it were legal to deliver rescued migrants to Libya, it would be as cheap as sending rescue boats a few extra kilometers south instead of east. But over the last few years, Europe’s maritime military patrols have conducted fewer and fewer sea rescue operations, while adding crewed and uncrewed aerial patrols and investing in remote-sensing technology to create expanded virtual borders to stop migrants before they get near a physical border.

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