Planet image of Tin Ma, Rakhine State on May 14, 2020, showing approx. 140 buildings affected by fire. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

How Satellite Data Helps to Monitor Geopolitical Change

Planet
Planet
May 28, 2020 · 6 min read

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.

Iran Is Getting Ready to Blow Up A Fake Aircraft Carrier, Again

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.

Planet SkySat satellites show Iran’s fake aircraft carrier on December 4, 2019 and January 1, 2020. © 2019 & 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Where Is Kim Jong-un? How Experts Track North Korea’s Leader

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.

Planet imagery, annotated by 38 North, shows the Leadership Railway Station in Wonsan, North Korea on April 23, 2020.

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 Photos Reveal Extent Of Damage From Iranian Strike On Air Base In Iraq

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.

Planet imagery revealed damage to at least five structures at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq. Analysis provided by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Some of the locations struck look like the missiles hit dead center,” David Schmerler, an analyst with the Middlebury Institute, told NPR.

Myanmar army accused of new atrocities in attack on Rakhine village

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.

Planet satellite imagery from May 14, 2020 shows approximately 140 buildings affected by fire in Tin Ma, Rakhine State. Analysis by Human Rights Watch. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Further analysis by HRW revealed that about 180 buildings were affected by fire in another village called Pyaing Taing, likely in March.

Planet imagery shows about 180 buildings affected by fire in Pyaing Taing, Rakhine State. Analysis by Human Rights Watch. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Iranian Rocket Launch Ends in Failure, Imagery Shows

Satellite imagery revealed that a rocket exploded on the launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran.

Planet imagery of the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran shows vehicles on a circular launch pad. Analysis provided by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Satellite imagery shows activity at critical North Korean missile site

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.

Planet’s satellite imagery shows the Sanum-Dong Production Hall, with analysis provided by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Rickety Anchor: North Korea Calls its Illicit Shipping Fleet Home amid Coronavirus Fears

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.

Planet imagery shows dozens of vessels outside of the West Sea Barrage in North Korea on March 17, 2020. Analysis provided by RUSI. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Satellite images show Wuhan’s empty streets

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.

Planet SkySats captured the desolate streets and railways of Wuhan, China as businesses temporarily suspended operations in an attempt to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Planet imagery shows a usually-crowded bridge over the key Yangtze waterway on January 12, 2020 and a completely deserted roadway on January 28, 2020 following the coronavirus outbreak. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Before and after high-resolution SkySat imagery reveals one of the new hospitals in Wuhan, China. It was built in a matter of days to help combat the fast-spreading virus. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

What It Looks Like From Space When Everything Stops

Bloomberg Green highlights a series of satellite images tracking global coronavirus-related shifts in near-real time.

On March 17, 2020, Volkswagen AG decided to halt production for three weeks, a move that CEO Herbert Diess said might not be long enough due to “drastic measures to protect liquidity,” according to Bloomberg Green. After Germany made moves to gather masks and ventilators to treat COVID-19 victims, Volkswagen began building up production capacity in China. The above imagery shows the Tianjin, China plant on May 1, 2019 (left) and May 3, 2020 (right). © 2019 & 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Planet imagery shows the usually-busy Venice canals in October of 2019 (left) and the nearly empty waterways on March 18, 2020 (right), following Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s call for a countrywide lockdown. © 2019 & 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Planet imagery shows the crowded Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, on January 25, 2020 (left), and again on March 10, 2020 (right), after the nation limited access to the shrine and suspended all entrance and prayers. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Epcot Center in Bay Lake Florida on January 6, 2020 (left) is full of park goers cars. Since COVID-19 safety measures were instated by Walt Disney Co. on March 18, 2020, the lots have continued to be empty (right). © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The typical queue that forms at the entrance to the Colosseum in Italy was absent in this SkySat image from April 6, 2020. Compared to July 5, 2019, traffic on the surrounding streets was greatly reduced. The Colosseum is among the many tourist sites around the world temporarily shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. © 2019 & 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CREA: Why Does the Smog Strike Beijing Even When the City is Closed Down?

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.

Planet imagery shows that some steel mills and power plants remain in operation around Beijing, China during the COVID-19 crisis. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Journalists! Planet is dedicated to helping reporters investigate important issues, and our tools are designed to do just that. If you haven’t already, sign up for a Planet Explorer account — free for the first two weeks — to unlock the potential for visual and compelling stories.

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