Why Space Matters: Satellites Can See Bad Actors

Bad Actor

Imaging and video satellites, like the SkyBox Imaging’s SkySat-1 satellite, bring a different, almost Santa-like, perspective to world events.  While they don’t necessarily see you when your sleeping, they can guess when you’re awake.  They know when you are rioting in the streets, and setting fire to property because your human rights are being violated.

Medium.com has a good article about the newest SkySat-1 satellite and what more of its kind may mean for governments around the world.  The article is very optimistic about the impact of commercial imagery satellites on human rights.  The story told within is that because despots and other governments know they are being watched from above, they’ll behave.  Satellites passing overhead are relatively easy to predict, however.  It wouldn’t have to be very smart despot to accomplish bad actions between satellites passing overhead.

The author does mention SkyBox’s satellite constellation might be populated with another 23 SkySat satellites.  All 24 would bring the SkySat revisit rate (the time between one satellite and a later one passing over the same area) to three hours.  But three hours is still plenty of time for shenanigans.  Maybe the number of imaging satellites will one day be so many more than 24, that the images will be real-time.  That might impact government behavior.

But there is another way to ensure certain parts of the Earth’s surface, during certain periods of time, never show up on the public’s radar.  The post doesn’t really address the ability of governments to perhaps “buy out” the imagery and video produced by SkyBox Imaging.  Between a private organization or the US government, which one might have more money to garner an imagery monopoly (hint: probably the one with a direct line to taxpayer veins)?  I am not sure what SkyBox’s official stance, or what US laws they may have to comply with for this.

But here’s a possibility of what could be done if a civil disruption occurred with a country the US is trying to maintain friendly ties with.   What’s to prevent the US government from hammering out an agreement with SkyBox Imaging that gives the US government the only rights to the satellite imagery at the time of the disruption?  I don’t know if it does happen, but there’s no technical reason satellite imagery denial couldn’t be done.  And there’s likely plenty of monetary incentive.  But perhaps there are other satellite operators with other countries already operating with this sort of imagery denial agreement?

Of course, in this age of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and connectivity, other people in other countries still might get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.  Perhaps the only way to prevent such an imagery stranglehold is to keep the number of satellite imagery operators growing.  Keep booming, smallsats!!

The example the author uses is a picture of Kiev in full riot.  So, the question needs to be asked:  how much has satellite imagery revealing the machinations of the Russian takeover of parts of Ukraine actually stopped them?  Maybe there are leaders in the world who just don’t care what others see.  Just sayin’…

The author does wonder what the price of Skybox Imaging products will be.  It can’t get much more nebulous than DigitalGlobe’s pricing list–I’m guessing more dollar signs mean more money bins.

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