these high definition satellite images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were not secretly captured by the CIA or the National Reconnaissance Office. They are also not classified. Rather, the images come from a private company known as Planet, one of several companies with a fleet of satellites that act as eyes in the sky – or, in this case, space. The images are public, posted on the internet, and broadcast to the media in what constitutes real-time documentation of the war from fleets of high-performance satellites swarming around the Earth in space.
The images are so revealing and valuable in times of war that Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, sent a plea last week to several satellites companies urging them to share their images with the Ukrainian military.
“We badly need the ability to monitor Russian troop movements, especially at night,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is truly the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery can play an important role in providing open source information on troop movements, military build-ups, in neighboring countries, flows refugees and more.”
At least five satellite companies are now sharing their images, EOS Data Analytics, the company Fedorov asked the satellite companies to partner with to help process the data, told The Washington Post this week. As many as eight other people did not respond, an EOS spokesperson said. The spokesperson would not name any of the companies.
Countries have used satellites for decades to spy on their enemies. But the revolution in satellite technology, which has made them smaller, cheaper and highly capable – and also placed them in private hands – raises new questions about the ramifications of such information, especially in times of war.
What if a US commercial entity provides actionable intelligence – images of a Russian convoy, for example – to a foreign government who then uses that data to mount an attack? Would Russia be justified in attacking the satellite? And if that were to happen, how should the US government react?
These questions have no easy answers, despite the Pentagon’s interest in private sector satellite capabilities for years and its partnerships with 10 commercial satellites companies to keep tabs on what’s happening in space. But the current Russian war against Ukraine has made them relevant.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted that “Russia tried jam signals and block coverageof Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system over Ukraine and asked Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of US Space Command, what the ‘legal framework’ is ‘when’ private actors are involved in contested situations “. Dickinson did not respond directly, though he did note that Starlink’s operations had demonstrated “what a megaconstellation or proliferated architecture can provide in terms of redundancy and capacity.”
Jack Beard, co-director of the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program at the University of Nebraska School of Law and a recognized expert on the subject, told the Post that jamming is generally not considered as “a use of force”. But he acknowledged that it was unclear what the response of the United States or other countries would be if a commercial satellite was attacked. “It has not been verified whether striking a commercial satellite rises to the level justifying a response to an armed attack,” he noted. “It’s easy to say that a lot of these things aren’t settled, because they are. But they are becoming more and more relevant.
“We did it deliberately because we thought it was a policy area where it’s unclear how we would view an attack like this and how we would respond,” analyst Todd Harrison said. of defense at CSIS and one of the authors of the report. . “We strongly urge policymakers to focus on this question, and I don’t think we have the answers yet.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank, says it is entirely possible for a commercial company to become a legitimate target in an armed conflict.
“If a commercial company sells data to a belligerent in an armed conflict, and that belligerent uses that data for targeting purposes, it is very likely that the commercial actor could be a party to the conflict,” he said. declared. “Another option could be that this commercial satellite is a legitimate military target.”
Or maybe the launcher. It’s something Virgin Orbit executives say they considered when considering a military role for their satellite launch platform, which intrigues the Pentagon as it launches its rockets under the wing of a 747 aircraft and not vertically from a fixed launch pad. That means a military customer could launch a rocket hundreds of miles from a known military base and “just set up a satellite with little or no warning,” said Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit.
But Virgin Orbit also acknowledges that such a wartime launch could be considered participation in the conflict. In this case, which Hart said was a rare and extreme example, he would seek to replace his civilian pilots with military personnel.
“We certainly wouldn’t want to be directly involved in an armed conflict,” he said. The company “could provide the system” to the military, he added. But “we would expect Air Force pilots to fly the mission, which certainly isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish,” he said.
From the beginning, space has always involved military activities. NASA and Russian space programs have their roots in military pursuits, and China’s space program has sounded the alarm over the years because a rocket capable of carrying people into orbit can also carry a warhead thousands of miles away. .
Commercial spaceflight adds a new dimension to that, said Beard, who is editor of the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations, which aims to help guide policy on military space operations.
“There is no reference guide to turn to. There is no comprehensive discussion of military activities in space. And yet, space has always had a huge amount of military activity,” he notes.
A spokesperson for Planet, the company that provided hundreds of images of Russian military activities in Ukraine, said the company “continues to provide images to our partners in governments, aviation and humanitarian organizations, data and media analysts”. But the spokesperson declined to share “the specific names of the companies or governments to which we provide our data”.
A spokesman for Iceye, a Finland-based satellite company, was also vague, saying it was aware of several initiatives “aimed at gathering available intelligence”. We are in contact with these representatives and try to coordinate with them.
But not everyone in the industry thinks satellite companies should publicly release images of Ukraine.
“I wish they wouldn’t share it with the mainstream media because everything they put out is also seen by the Russians, which defeats the purpose of intelligence,” said Marc Bell, CEO of Terran Orbital, a satellite company.
Several of the US satellite companies have contracts with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. But since this work is largely classified, it is difficult to know the extent and scope of the work, according to military analysts.
And it’s entirely possible that the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies will see sensitive images before the public.
“It looks like the agencies have some sort of right-of-first-use agreement” with the satellite companies, Beard said. “But then that material still belongs to the company, and they are allowed to release it.”