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Ukraine Asks Commercial Satellite Operators for Help Tracking Russian Troops

Some companies say they're already providing views of the invasion from orbit.

Satellite image showing a Russian convoy in Ukraine
This satellite image from Maxar shows homes burning and part of a Russian convoy near Invankiv in Ukraine.
Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Ukraine's leaders are appealing to commercial satellite operators around the world to supply the nation with imagery from space to help defend against the ongoing Russian invasion

"We badly need the opportunity to watch the movement of Russian troops, especially at night," Ukraine's vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, wrote in a letter addressed to the leadership of eight commercial space companies. "SAR satellite data is important to understanding Russian troop and vehicles movements at night, considering that clouds cover about 80 percent of Ukraine during the day." (SAR refers to synthetic aperture radar, which uses a sensor to collect data.)

The request goes on to ask that data be provided to the Ukrainian military and EOS Data Analytics, a commercial space company founded by Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov. EOSDA made its own appeal for help earlier Tuesday.

"EOSDA has updated its platform to be able to immediately analyze the military situation," the company said in a statement. "Data will be processed, analyzed, and shared in real-time with Ukraine's Armed Forces and with humanitarian organizations."

The company has set up a portal on its website to receive satellite data.

Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last Thursday with tens of thousands of troops and has been moving deeper into the country -- now encircling key cities -- in what US President Joe Biden has condemned as a "brutal attack." The US, EU and UK have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine.

A number of the companies that Fedorov calls on, including Planet, Maxar, BlackSky and Capella Space, have already been sharing images of Russian troop movements on social media and with news outlets.   

A spokesperson for BlackSky said in an emailed statement that the company "stands with the courageous people of Ukraine. We have and will continue to support their efforts through our partners and members of the press with actionable data and analytics."

Planet CEO Will Marshall said on Twitter late Tuesday that his outfit has been working since before the invasion to provide timely data: "This already includes governments, intergovernmental orgs, relief orgs, as well as the media."

Iceye said in a statement that it has been coordinating with governments in Finland, the US and the European Union. 

"There are several initiatives underway that we are aware of which are looking at gathering available intelligence. We are in contact with these representatives and are trying to coordinate with them the appropriate access to Iceye imagery."

EOSDA's Polyakov requested that companies provide "the SAR data that actually makes a difference, not the archived or otherwise outdated optical images that are good for PR purposes and as evidence of war crimes for future international criminal court proceedings." 

Capella Space released a statement Tuesday that seems to refer to Polyakov as being on a list of parties that are not permitted to receive assistance from the US government. 

"Therefore Capella Space is not in a position to support these entities," the statement reads. "Due to the rapidly changing situation and requirement for timely delivery of data, we find it prudent to work directly with US and Ukrainian government entities for the foreseeable future."

Fedorov's statement also namechecks Elon Musk and Apple CEO Tim Cook among those already assisting Ukraine. Musk's SpaceX has activated its Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine and shipped receivers to the country. Apple has stopped selling its products in Russia, limited Apple Pay transactions in the country and disabled some features of Apple Maps in Ukraine to protect civilians.

"This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery may play a significant role in providing open source information about troop movements," Fedorov wrote. 

Airbus, Maxar and SIIS didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.