As humanity responds to climate change and rising global economic and diplomatic tensions — geopolitical issues are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Earth-imaging satellites are helping decision makers stay on top of big issues, no matter where they are in the world. Because recent travel restrictions have many of us bound to particular locations, there’s been an ever-increasing need for Planet’s cloud-based imaging platform, which consistently chronicles events worldwide — providing people with the truth and knowledge to take action.
Here are some recent examples of how satellite data has been a critical tool for assessing and responding to geopolitical events since the start of 2019, and how it can continue to provide critical information in these unprecedented times.
Defense One utilized satellite imagery from Planet to determine that Iran completed repairs on a mock aircraft carrier, discerning that it could potentially be destroyed as part of a military exercise.
When North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un mysteriously vanished in April of 2020 and rumors spread of his possible death, journalists and expert analysts utilized satellite imagery to look for changes and patterns that might explain and track Kim’s whereabouts.
Reports by the New York Times and ABC News showed Planet imagery of a train station near Kim’s retreat complex in Wonsan, North Korea. 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, analyzed the imagery, discovering that one of Kim’s personal trains was parked nearby, suggesting that he wasn’t dead, but was actually visiting Wonsan.
Satellite imagery taken in January of 2020 revealed that an Iranian missile strike caused severe damage at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq, which hosts U.S. and coalition troops.
“Some of the locations struck look like the missiles hit dead center,” David Schmerler, an analyst with the Middlebury Institute, told NPR.
Earlier this year, residents of a village called Tin Ma in Rakhine state claimed that the Myanmar army had entered their village in February and March, causing villagers to flee. Two of the residents say they saw soldiers deliberately burning the residences on March 22nd and 23rd.
Because there is a virtual ban on foreign media in Rakhine state, and because the Internet has been blocked in some areas for over a year while local journalists are harassed, it has been difficult to verify whether these claims were true.
But Human Rights Watch was able to utilize Planet’s satellite imagery to show that 140 buildings were in fact affected by fire in Tin Ma, likely during the dates the residents had claimed.
Further analysis by HRW revealed that about 180 buildings were affected by fire in another village called Pyaing Taing, likely in March.
Satellite imagery revealed that a rocket exploded on the launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran.
In the days before, Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) analyzed Planet imagery to determine that the pad had been newly painted — and that multiple vehicles had surrounded the site in what appears to be preparation for launch.
Planet imagery revealed a large blue shipping container at Sanum-dong missile research center near Pyongyang, an activity that could possibly signal missile or missile engine test preparations, according to one administration official and three defense officials familiar with the latest U.S. assessment.
While what was in the container was a mystery, the imagery showed that the container was moved at varying intervals in January — with the container being visible in images captured on January 9 and 10 but not in images taken four days later. The container also showed up again in images captured on January 16, but disappeared on January 19.
Researchers at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank used a combination of Planet satellite imagery and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to discover that North Korea’s main ports contained an unprecedented number of vessels. The vessels, according to RUSI, are often used for moving North Korea’s waterborne trade in and out of the country — suggesting that North Korea had ordered a large portion of its fleet to cease operations, likely due to COVID-19 safety measures.
Reuters utilized Planet data to track the effects that the coronavirus outbreak had on Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province. Quarantine efforts brought the city of 11 million to a halt as people stayed inside their homes to help protect themselves from illness. Below are a series of Planet images documenting the changes in Wuhan as they unfolded.
Bloomberg Green highlights a series of satellite images tracking global coronavirus-related shifts in near-real time.
Due to closed construction sites and factories related to coronavirus, China has been experiencing its lowest recorded air pollution levels — yet still remains steeped in smog in certain areas of Beijing. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) used our imagery in a recent report, which describes how researchers used satellite data to discover that many steel mills and power plants have continued operation near Beijing, causing pollution.
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