July 7, 2022

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The Polish army wants satellites.  It's getting so cheap that it's starting to turn into us

The Polish army wants satellites. It’s getting so cheap that it’s starting to turn into us

cosmic Radars They are precisely SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellites, that is, devices that are a specific type of Earth-oriented radar. They are able to take pictures of the surface of our planet in high resolution. No matter the time of day or clouds.

Until recently, these devices had to be bulky and expensive. Soviet satellite RORSAT for ship detection For this They even have a nuclear power source on board. However, this has changed in recent years thanks to new technologies. SAR satellites have shrunk and ceased to be expensive tools for the great powers. Our military is already using it, albeit on a limited scale. This may change in the wake of the war-induced rush shopping.

Observation from a great height

It is undeniable that the Ministry of National Defense has global ambitions. In May, Minister Mariusz Bosachtaek announced that a contract with Airbus for two large optical reconnaissance satellites would be signed later this year. That is, taking pictures in the best known way, in the visible light range. Big cameras in orbit. They should be ours, that is, perform tasks only for the Polish army. Together with the satellites, a ground station will be purchased to receive and process data transmitted from space.

The signals from the satellites will go to the Image Recognition Center, a little-known unit based in Białowicy near Warsaw, which was founded in 2015. Its task is to process and analyze the traces of the reconnaissance carried out in various ways. Whether we use DB-110 trays with cameras attached under our F-16s, from satellites (we buy images from several civilian sources, particularly Airbus and the SAR COSMO-Skymed constellation), or from drones (mainly NATO RQ reconnaissance -4 Global hook). Getting a picture is only the first and simplest step, because you still have to interpret it afterwards. For this you need experienced people who are often able to assess the intentions of the enemy in a particular place, from things that are not clearly visible in a picture or a series of them.

In the coming years, the center will undergo a major expansion. The military and the Ministry of National Defense have been theoretically aware of the enormous potential of satellite reconnaissance for a long time. There were satellite programs included in the update program, but a few came out. For years it was the main limitation cost and lack of adequate human resources and structures. Classic large reconnaissance satellites are expensive equipment. The cost of the best planes to be launched into space for the Pentagon is billions dollar Each piece, while smaller and more ambitious to me, is “only” in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And that’s a lot for the Polish army’s budget, especially when it comes to a rather strange ability in a world controlled by people who are unlikely to look into space. This, however, is about to change.

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Russian bases near the Polish border visible from space

Small maybe almost the same

Fortunately, a revolution is underway, in the form of long-range miniaturization, simplification and, therefore, the cheapest, of imaging satellites. Leading the way is civilian companies that respond to the growing demand to provide a view of our planet from orbit. There are already dozens of different special imaging satellites in space, especially optical, belonging to companies such as Planetlabs, Maxar and Airbus. We have already described how quickly this market is developing and what it offers, for example, in the context of monitoring the Russian army.

Among these companies there is also the Finnish-Polish Satellite Observation Center, which is located in the unusual place mentioned above in the heart of Warsaw. Her representatives invited several journalists to join her in early June. ICEYE is the product of the idea of ​​two engineering students – Rafał Modrzewski and Pekka Lauril. The Poles and the Finns met when the former went to a university in Helsinki under the Erasmus programme. Their idea was to create the new A kind of small, cheap SAR-imaging satellite that can be used to monitor the extent of ice in the Arctic. Hence the company’s name, loosely translated to “Ice Eye”. The first prototype satellite flew into space in 2018. Today there are already 21 rockets in orbit (they were implemented on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets), of which 20 are active, the latest of which is already the third version. In Warsaw, about 30 percent of them are partially designed and manufactured. The control center is also located here. All this in an office building in the center of Warsaw.

Three satellites among many others are ready to take off at the top of the Falcon 9 rocket. Two can be seen in the upper left corner, and a third from the upper rightThree satellites among many others are ready to take off at the top of the Falcon 9 rocket. Two can be seen in the upper left corner, and a third from the upper right ice picture

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It turns out that small satellites (a little more than 100 kg) are in great demand and are therefore relatively cheap. Observation of Arctic ice has been pushed to the background. For example, monitoring the effects of natural disasters to meet the needs of emergency services and insurance companies has turned out to be very attractive. For example, SAR satellites can perfectly depict the situation in a flooded area, even despite heavy rain clouds. Show where, how much water has risen and how many buildings have been submerged. In this way, the company managed to get a contract for the Brazilian army somewhat by chance, because in 2019 one of the first satellites managed to capture the effects of the catastrophic collapse of the dam and the flooding of the village of Brumadinho under it. Thanks to the images that were donated for free, the Brazilians were able to better plan the rescue operations. The result was the Brazilian army’s request for two satellites and a receiving station. The company is also proud of the contracts concluded with the Pentagon. Because of the war in Ukraine, the demand for various armed forces and services was supposed to increase significantly.

Promadinho photos from 2019 before and after the collapse of the damPromadinho photos from 2019 before and after the collapse of the dam ice picture

ICEYE officials say their satellites are in a class of their own right now. There are no others that are so small and at the same time present images of this quality. After processing, it should drop to a level of 25 cm per pixel, a quality comparable to that of leading civilian optical satellites. Whereas until recently it was common for radar satellites to have much lower image quality. Its main feature, that is, the ability to observe the Earth, regardless of the weather and time of day, remains unchanged.

In addition, a single ICEYE satellite is set to be about 10 times cheaper than the larger SAR satellites weighing more than a ton. According to company representatives, initially the Polish army will need a constellation of 2-4, as well as a ground control and training station. The whole thing would be close to a hundred million dollars max. This is about 400 million PLN. Initial readiness of the entire system within 18 months of the contract.

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Spying on the Russians from above

Something like this generally fits the plans of the Ministry of National Defense, which wants to have a constellation of different types of satellites that serve only the needs of the Polish army. From the great classic optics, which we will likely buy soon from Airbus, to the various micro/nano-satellites. The PIAST program has been in operation since 2021, and is implemented by a number of universities, military and civilian companies, the goal of which is to launch four small optical reconnaissance satellites in 2024. The cost is 70 million PLN. If we manage within this budget and within that time frame, it will be a huge success, although the quality of the images will not be great, given the order of one meter per pixel.

Buying images from foreign satellites nowadays may be economical, but that regularly means you can’t get quick shots of areas of interest. We are only one among a number of clients, and we are not a big client. On the other hand, the rapid availability of space reconnaissance could be of great importance on the battlefield, as demonstrated by the war in Ukraine.

The Ukrainians do not have their own satellites, but it is no secret that they receive a lot of help from NATO in this regard. Perhaps from US military satellites, which are in a class of their own, but also thanks to large purchases of services from civilian suppliers. ICEYE representatives generally admit that, among other things, their satellites are often used to monitor selected regions of Ukraine. And they are happy to support our neighbors to the best of their ability. The fact that the Ukrainians are able to respond well to Russian attacks often attack them when they are weak is not accidental, but the result of good recognition. Its basic element is cosmic reconnaissance. It would be good if the Polish army had the capabilities of the twenty-first century in this field. Especially since it is no longer a cosmologically expensive thing.