Maxar’s satellite images briefly work with the Kremlin’s claims

“Not true, Russia,” tweeted New York Timesjournalist Malachy Browne, the day after the Kremlin said about the bodies in the streets of Ukraine’s Butha that they had only been placed after the departure of the Russian army. The evidence found by The New York Times’ Visual Investigations team was satellite images from March 9, 10, 11 and 19, when the Russians took control of the suburb of Kiev. These images show the contours of corpses on the street exactly like the horrific images filmed from a car in early April after the Russians left.

It was not conclusive evidence of who killed them, but it was now certain that the civilians had been there for weeks.

With its three WorldView satellites and a GeoEye satellite, the American satellite company Maxar has already several times during this war produced image-defining satellite images as ‘eyes in the sky’ in areas that journalists do not have access to. It started with the images of the troop build-up on the Russian-Ukrainian border, later razor-sharp images of the kilometer-long stationary military convoy on its way to Kiev were added. There are pictures of the bombed-out Mariupol, of the ruined theater where people were hiding and where the word ‘children’ was written on it. Thanks to Maxar, among others, clear traces of newly built mass graves can be seen near the besieged city.

The New York Times’ PR department says the newspaper will not comment further on the realization of the revelation about Boecha. Whether Maxar proactively offered the images to the newspaper’s Visual Investigations team is still unclear, though Browne said in a statement. conversation with Twitter followers indicated that they themselves had requested the images from various services. Maxars were the sharpest.

shadows

Shortly afterwards, a pro-Putin Telegram channel claimed, among other things, that Maxar’s picture on March 19 was dated April 1, the same day the bodies were filmed from the driving car. This was quickly refuted by the BBC, which concluded by comparing different satellite images from other services that the shadows on Maxar’s photo match the shadows on other images from 19 March. And certainly not with it from April 1st. CNN reported last week that it had drone footage from March 12 and 13 showing Russian soldiers on the street where the bodies are already lying.

The images that Maxar can provide have such a resolution that objects up to thirty centimeters can be distinguished from their surroundings on images taken by the satellite. By comparison, images taken by satellites of the European Space Agency (ESA) are of much lower resolution; objects from a few to tens of thousands of meters can be distinguished on it.

The satellite images were not conclusive evidence of who killed them, but it was now established that the civilians had been there for weeks

Maxar’s WorldView satellites and GeoEye orbit, via the poles, around the Earth at an altitude between 440 and 775 kilometers. “They fly over a certain area twice every 24 hours,” says Marco Langbroek from Leiden University. “On request, a specific area can be photographed more frequently because the satellite’s sensors can rotate. Then the area can be photographed from an oblique angle (max. 62 degrees), even when the satellite does not fly directly over it. ”

Maxar serves hundreds of customers, from Tomtom to the US government and several allied intelligence services. And so are journalistic organizations. A PR employee rejects an interview because of crowds. In a statement, the company said it was “on its own initiative” sharing satellite images of the war zone to help the media and NGOs “fight the spread of disinformation.”

Maxar has a news agency where journalistic organizations can collaborate more intensively. Director Stephen Wood said only in an interview with the Canadian television company CBC that Maxar’s role in war reporting is “the top” of the possibilities the technology has to offer. Its satellites take “snapshots” of the world as it appears at any given time, allowing for comparisons between times.

MH17

An earlier example of effective use of satellite images against Russian claims dates back to 2014. The research collective Bellingcat used Maxar, then called the Digital Globe, in its study of the shooting down of MH17. Following a crowdfunding campaign, satellite images of the fateful day, July 17, 2014, were acquired. This allowed Bellingcat to reject a claim by Russia for Ukrainian involvement. The satellite image shared by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which was to show that a Ukrainian book installation on that date was not parked at the base but was set up in a field, turned out to be from a different date.

Also read: A few pixels per. seal

The use of satellites has expanded the applications in warfare as more types of satellites become available and the quality of the images improves. WorldView and GeoEye from Maxar see in the same light as the human eye, “but to detect camouflaged heavy vehicles and equipment, such as tanks driving through forests, satellites in a different light are needed,” says Mark van der Meijde from the University of Twente. “For example, in infrared light that is invisible to the human eye. “Such satellites reveal the presence of tanks because the material of heavy vehicles reflects infrared light with a different intensity than trees.”

Maxar also has satellites that can observe at night and right through clouds. These so-called radar satellites send radio waves to the earth and then use a sensor to measure how many waves the earth reflects back. For example, radar satellites can recognize barbed wire, and radar images from ESA air defense systems can be clearly seen.

NRC examines the struggle for Ukraine’s image. Mail media@nrc.nl with tips.

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