Capella Space sheds light on 24/7 all-weather Earth observation

"I couldn't understand why we couldn't find something as large as a Boeing 777 (Malaysia Airlines Flight 370)."
Sade Agard
Capalla Space - the world's leading provider of commercial SAR imagery
Capalla Space - the world's leading provider of commercial SAR imagery.

Courtesy of Capella Space 

  • Interesting Engineering (IE) spoke with the CEO of Capella Space- the world's leading commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery provider.
  • There is a growing demand for SAR satellites capable of 24/7 all-weather monitoring of the Earth.
  • We discuss some of the real-use cases for SAR technology, particularly in Ukrainian defense and humanitarian crises. 

The growth of the commercial space industry and advances in cloud computing have triggered a smallsat revolution, generating a wealth of space-based data. Yet, nearly all the companies currently offering smallsat services rely on optical satellites (which capture spectral bands on the visible spectrum), which can have difficulty providing quick and accurate Earth observation in poor weather conditions.

Now, Capella Space- an American space tech company and one of the world's leading providers of commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery - is opening up entirely new and effective avenues for a greater understanding of our planet.

In 2018 Capella Space launched the United States' first commercial SAR satellite, "Denali," a first step in Capella's construction of a 36-satellite constellation capable of 24/7 all-weather monitoring of the Earth.

The company followed this with the launch of 'Sequoia' in 2020, demonstrating that they could produce the highest quality commercial SAR imagery in a small fraction of the time and money required by traditional SAR satellite manufacturers.

Capella Space sheds light on 24/7 all-weather Earth observation
Capella Space collects SAR imagery over Russia

This year, Capella Space announced it had secured a multi-launch deal with a leading launch and space systems company - Rocket lab USA.

The endeavor will involve four launch missions, beginning in the second half of 2023. Each one will deploy one of Capella's new-generation SAR Earth-imaging Acadia satellites to low Earth orbit, underscoring the growing demand for SAR tech across various industries. 

Payam Banazadeh, the CEO and founder of Capella Space, spoke with Interesting Engineering (IE) to discuss what makes SAR technology stand out, as well as some of its real-use cases.

The following Q&A session has been edited for length and clarity. 

Interesting Engineering: Could you briefly describe what Capella Space is? 

Payam Banazadeh: Capella Space is an American space tech company with data and satellite solutions for government and commercial use. The company delivers the highest quality and highest resolution of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery commercially available. 

Capella's advanced SAR satellites can penetrate through all types of weather conditions - clouds, fog, smoke, rain - and can be captured day and night, enabling 24/7 reliable monitoring to collect and analyze Earth observation data. 

In addition, the Capella Console, Capella's on-demand self-service tasking platform, gives customers the ability to task and collect high-resolution images directly and gain valuable insights with the fastest order-to-delivery time.  

IE: What were the founders' motivations behind starting the company? 

As a former engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I was driven to start the company following the news of the disappearance of Malaysian Airways Flight 370 in the Pacific Ocean in 2014. 

I couldn't understand why we couldn't find something as large as a Boeing 777, which led me to research existing technology that could help this cause. Eventually, my research led me to SAR technology.

I soon learned that a missing airplane isn't the best use case for SAR technology. But, the more research I did, the more I realized how the world would benefit from having a solution to collect quality Earth observation data that could capture reliable and timely imagery when the world needed it most. 

While governments have been and continue to be the primary users of SAR, there are a lot of commercial use cases for the technology. Since SAR hadn't been available commercially in the U.S., we saw an opportunity to make this technology more accessible.  

IE: In your own words, could you describe what 'Synthetic Aperture Radar' or SAR is?  

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology uses a radar antenna to capture large swaths of data on Earth, day or night, through clouds or smoke. 

Capella's SAR satellites actively send radar waves toward the requested geolocations on Earth. These waves then bounce off the Earth's surface to be processed and converted into a readable image. 

Capella Space sheds light on 24/7 all-weather Earth observation
Capella Space collects SAR imagery over Fort Knox gold mine, U.S.

Capella's sensors have a bandwidth of up to 500 megahertz (MHz), which allows Capella to achieve a 50cm x 50cm resolution spot imagery- the highest-resolution commercial SAR imagery available. 

IE: Importantly, what makes SAR technology unique? 

SAR technology is unique because of its ability to capture images through any weather conditions – cloud, rain, fog, snow, and smoke – and capture images 24/7 - day or night. 

Other Earth observation sensors rely on optical sensors that require pristine conditions, meaning that to capture clear images, the image needs to be taken on a clear day with little to no weather interference.

In addition, Capella's SAR satellites specifically offer the industry's highest quality, highest resolution SAR imagery with the fastest order-to-delivery time, meaning customers have access to faster, more accurate data to inform better decision-making.  

IE: Could you highlight some real-use cases for Capella Space's technologies/services? 

Capella Space's unique SAR imaging capabilities are used both commercially and within various defense and intelligence sectors. 

Most recently, Capella Space has been working with the U.S. and Ukrainian governments along with other approved government and commercial entities to task imagery of the ongoing conflict.

Capella Space was uniquely positioned to capture initial images at the start of the conflict because its high-quality commercial SAR technology could respond during extreme weather conditions of fog and cloud coverage.  

In addition to supporting the public sector, there's a massive growth opportunity for commercial applications across various industries, including insurance, energy, shipping and supply chain, agriculture, and more. The aim is to help companies, NGOs, civil governments, and other organizations make informed decisions and assist with humanitarian and environmental action.

Capella Space sheds light on 24/7 all-weather Earth observation
Capella Space collects SAR imagery over La Soufriere volcano, St Vincent

For example, Capella's imagery was used to help identify property damage and inundated regions to commercial assets during Hurricane Ida. In another example, Orbital EOS used Capella imagery to identify a spill of harmful chemicals from the X-Press Pearl on the shore of Sri Lanka.   

IE: What else should we know about Capella Space?

Capella has experienced tremendous growth since it was founded. In 2022 Capella expanded its analytics capabilities to deliver automated insights for faster decision-making. 

These analytics capabilities are directly integrated into the Capella Console and include Vessel Detection, Change Detection, and Global Change Monitoring. Capella continues to innovate and has plans to expand its analytics offerings in the future. 

In 2021, Capella launched its Open Data Program allowing researchers, nonprofits, developers, and disaster response organizations direct access to high-quality Earth observation data in an effort to build a large community of users to develop mission-critical applications with geospatial data to solve the world's biggest challenges. 

In 2022, Capella deepened its investment in the program by making a collection of our SAR Earth observation data free and open through Amazon Web Services (AWS) Open Data Sponsorship Program. 

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