Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has relied on foreign partners when it comes to space intelligence.
Ukraine doesn’t have its own satellite in orbit. That is why it requests satellite imagery from its allies in order to track Russian troop movements and document Russia’s alleged war crimes.
But that is about to change.
On Aug. 18, Ukraine’s Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation purchased a Finnish-produced ICEYE satellite for the country’s armed forces.
The charity made the purchase with the $17 million initially fundraised by Ukrainians to buy Bayraktar attack drones. The Turkish manufacturer, Baykar, refused to take the money and instead offered three drones to Ukraine for free.
According to an agreement with ICEYE, Ukraine gets one of the company’s 21 satellites and one-year access to imagery collected by other ICEYE spacecraft. Ukraine will remain the sole owner of the satellite for as long as it remains in orbit, and if the satellite fails, the company is obliged to provide Ukraine with a new one.
ICEYE launched its constellation of satellites in 2018. The estimated lifetime for satellites is at least three years. The company claims to operate the world’s largest constellation of radar satellites, but it does not disclose how many of them are still in orbit.
In the last 10 years, Ukraine didn’t have its own satellite and spent thousands of dollars buying data from the European Union, China, and the U.S.
In January this year, the country finally launched its own satellite, the Sich 2–30, worth about $8 million, using SpaceX’s rocket Falcon 9. However, a month later, the State Space Agency reported that it was malfunctioning. And in July, Ukrainian media reported that the satellite was lost, citing the letter of the State Space Agency to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.
How can satellite images help Ukraine during war?
According to Ukrainian aerospace expert Andrii Kolesnyk, during the war, the military usually relies on three types of intelligence: ground, air (gathered by drones), and space (gathered by satellites).
One of the main advantages of space intelligence is access to archives that make it possible to analyze the movement of enemy troops and their tactics over time. This data helps the army plan strategic military operations.
Another advantage of owning a satellite is the ability to take images outside of Ukraine, such as in Russia, according to Kolesnyk. Foreign companies have thus far refused to take pictures of Russian territory on Ukraine’s behalf, he said.
“Satellites make it possible to see where other types of intelligence cannot,” Kolesnyk told the Kyiv Independent.
Satellites also help gather evidence of war crimes. Thanks to satellite imagery, journalists were able to prove that bodies of killed Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb that was under occupation in the first stage of the war, were lying on the city’s streets for weeks, debunking Russia’s claim that the killings were “staged” after the Russian forces had withdrawn from the area.