Capella Unveils World’s Highest Resolution Commercial SAR Imagery

It has been a little over three months since the launch of our first operational satellite Capella-2 (formerly named Sequoia) and I can tell you that this has been the most exciting three months of our journey after founding Capella only four years ago. We made history with this launch as the first and only American commercial SAR company and we have a lot more history-making announcements coming soon — including this one.

Over the last few months, we have been sharing our 2-meter resolution Strip imagery and it looks fantastic. Most importantly our early adopters, customers, and partners have been providing incredibly positive feedback on our image quality.

Today, I am excited to unveil yet another first for our industry. Capella is now the highest resolution commercial SAR provider in the world, capable of 50 cm x 50 cm resolution imaging.

(Above: The metallic refining units and piping brightly reflect radar signals at ExxonMobil’s Singapore Chemical plant on Jurong Island. Very high resolution zoomed in views show the granular features of an oil tanker docked near floating roof storage tanks.)

What are we unveiling today?

We are unveiling the highest resolution commercial SAR imagery available in the market at 50 cm x 50 cm resolution in our new Spotlight or “Spot” imaging mode. Our Spot product is a specialized mode that allows for long exposures over an area of interest (AOI) and results in a beautiful and crystal-clear SAR imagery. This new 50 cm x 50 cm imagery is collected by dwelling our satellites over an AOI for a long period. Think of it as a long exposure on your digital camera when you are trying to collect more light into your sensor. Except we are doing a very long exposure looking at a single location on Earth while traveling at 7.5 km per second in space. Our satellites have been designed with the capability to dwell on a single location for as long as 60 seconds.

Before Capella, other SAR providers could dwell on a single target for only a few seconds  with their electronically steered antenna. The addition of more than an order of magnitude of exposure time in comparison to what is currently possible with other systems allows Capella satellites to provide incredibly sharp SAR imagery, which enables easier and more accurate image interpretation and analysis. Prior to Capella, the best resolution on the market was 1 m x 25 cm with non-square pixels which created its own challenges. These previous images were collected with limited bandwidth of 300 MHz where our imagery is collected with up to 500 MHz of bandwidth, with future satellite generations more than doubling that bandwidth at 1.2Ghz for even higher resolution.

This new mode is enabled by our unique satellite design that allows us to mechanically steer our sensor to dwell on a single target for a long duration. Spot mode is supported by the satellite’s extensive imaging capacity which allows us to take many of these long dwell collects throughout each of our orbits. We’ve been able to build such a unique system due to our vertical integration approach between our hardware and software – from our SAR payload, to the ground infrastructure, to the SAR processor, and the satellite hardware that goes with it all.

(Above: American Airlines retires its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft and Airbus A300-600R jetliners at the Roswell Air Center in New Mexico. Capella’s highest resolution imaging mode shows the aircraft and their shadows reveal granular details such as the size of a cockpit, fuselage, wings and engines.)

What does this mean to our customers?

Most importantly this announcement is game-changing because of what it does for our customers. This new imaging mode means our customers can see more and do more with our imagery. Our Spot images are sharper and provide a new depth of insight from highly distinguishable features in each image. For our customers, every clue has the potential to save lives, and this new level of detail introduces hundreds of new clues in each image. While most analysts are accustomed to optical images, we have had customers ask us if our SAR images are actually black and white panchromatic images! We see this as a sign that high quality SAR is elevating the industry and will democratize this fascinating technology.

(Above: Capella’s new Spot imagery captures the Jiuquan Launch Center where China recently launched its new commercial CERES-1 rocket. The spaceport’s launch pad areas and vertical assembly area are clearly visible in the radar image and a zoomed in version shows a closeup of the launch pad.)

Why does the world need high resolution SAR data now?

When I started Capella almost four and a half years ago the goal was to build a new tool for humanitarian work and human progress globally. A tool that allows us to monitor our planet in all-weather and in all-light conditions and to do so reliably and transparently. My initial frustration was over the disappearance of the MH370 flight and our inability to locate it – despite decades of investment in Earth observation and tracking technologies. The conclusion was that we need to do better, better in Earth observation, better in tracking things, and better at understanding the planet we live on. Consequently, in order to understand our planet better we need to monitor it more reliably and more frequently.

Looking at the global events of the last four years since we started this journey, I think this capability has never been more needed than today. One of the most recent events that could have used our capability were the millions of acres of the West Coast of the United States that were devastated by wildfires and completely blanketed a third of our country in hazardous opaque smoke. If we can’t see what’s happening around us, we can’t make good decisions. SAR allows us, our first responders, our policy makers, and the world to see. That is critical.
And today with our very high-resolution Spot mode we have brought a new perspective to the world, one that allows non-SAR users to visually utilize SAR imagery better than before.

(Above: The Aksum Airport was heavily damaged during the Ethiopian Tigray conflict. Capella’s very high-resolution Spot image identifies 23 trenches dug perpendicularly across the runway to prevent its usage. A closeup shows the trenches and debris highly contrasted against the dark tarmac.)

How did we do this?

I am particularly proud of the fact that Capella-2 (our first operational satellite) is an in-house creation built by a group of less than 100 engineers over the course of the last few years. We had to build our own satellite because no existing satellite could do what we wanted to do. Capella-2 is a revolutionary satellite that will forever change how we collect imagery from space and how we monitor our planet. This is a big win for our industry. It is the result of 4 years of ingenuity, hard work, creativity, and commitment to the cause. Through numerous iterations on this brand-new design, we launched a successful prototype satellite in 2018, ultimately leading to our highly capable operational satellite today.
All of that has brought us a satellite that in many ways is challenging and disrupting the status-quo while building a new category. A 107 kg satellite that is small on the ground but humongous in space.

Artistic rendering of Denali — Capella’s first test satellite launched in 2018
Artistic rendering of Capella-2 — Capella’s evolved design and first operational satellite launched in 2020

With this design we are able to do more with less  —  literally. We can collect high quality and high-resolution imagery that was once only thought possible with satellites designed and built by governments and giant corporations, often taking ten or more years to develop, at costs well into the hundreds of millions.

To get a sense of the complexities involved with our satellite and delivery system you have to look at what has gone into Capella-2, a 107kg microsatellite. When launched into orbit it is merely as large as a small washing machine. Once Capella-2 is deployed on orbit it transforms itself by deploying a boom the length of a minivan and unfurls a high gain antenna the size of a small bedroom. From a washing machine to a bedroom, this tiny but mighty satellite has more than 400 meters of cables and wiring connecting more than 100 individual boards and electronics, with complex software running in the background built with over 250,000 lines of C code, over 10,000 lines of Python code, and over 500,000 lines of FPGA code. The ground software that allows our team to interact with the satellite in space has over 850,000 lines of code and is deployed across 5 continents in remote places and giant data centers. The whole system is nothing short of remarkable.

How can Capella customers request and collect imagery?

Easy! With all the complexities that have gone into the satellite, the customer experience is elegant, easy, and straight forward. We made our user experience as simple as our hardware is complex, creating a frictionless flow of data from space to inform timely decisions on Earth. We didn’t build a satellite company to sell satellites to masses, we built a satellite company to bring earth observation to masses. This is where our intuitive web application and API with fully automated order-to-delivery system comes in. Both the Capella Console web application and Capella API make it easy for customers to search our image library catalog or request new acquisitions via on-demand self-serve constellation tasking. We made it so simple that all you have to do is login, define your area-of-interest, and search the existing catalog or submit a new acquisition tasking request. Once a new acquisition has been collected, automatically processed and delivered customers receive an alert so they can login and access the SAR imagery products in a timely manner. And it works — just like that!

(Above: The Capella Console is the first on-demand customer tasking system in the SAR industry. End-to-end automation increases the speed to insight and reduces operational security risk with no humans in the loop.)

Speaking on behalf of the entire Capella team, Capella-2’s success has energized and inspired our team to work even harder to realize our plans to use this exciting technology to help understand life on Earth. We are moving fast and are excited about what is coming next, including many more satellites that are in various stages of production and will launch over the coming months.

Until then, onward & upward and get in touch with us if you want to be part of the SAR revolution. 

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