The traffic jam stretched from the Russian city of Belgorod to the Ukrainian border. Google Maps marked the congestion with red and orange, just as it does in all countries where the app is used to track traffic. But the GPS satellites sending these vehicles’ positions to Google were not picking up an ordinary traffic jam. This was 40 kilometers of traffic caused by Russian troops.
That convoy turned out to be an early warning that the Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders were on the move. It was first noticed at 3:15 am on Thursday of last week by Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), a graduate school in California — hours before reports of Ukraine’s first explosions filtered into the news. But he did not stumble on it by accident. Lewis had a tip-off from a radar image taken by a commercial satellite company called Capella Space, which showed Russian troops lined up along the road in columns near Belgorod. “When the Russians are camping for a long time they park their tanks in a square and they put up tents,” says Lewis.
But this satellite image showed troops in a very different formation. There were no tents; they were ready to move. When one of Lewis’ colleagues started searching for the routes this column might take to move towards Ukraine, he found the traffic jam. “It’s really a story about fusing different kinds of data,” says Lewis.
Then, on February 28, Google said it would temporarily turn off live traffic updates in Ukraine “after consulting with multiple sources on the ground, including local authorities.” Google did not elaborate on why it was worried about the feature. But researchers speculate the company is concerned that traffic data revealing the location of troops or refugees could be used to inform military strikes. “You can understand why Google wouldn’t want to be a party to providing targeting data in an international conflict,” says Lewis.
In the sky above Ukraine right now are around 50 working satellites, estimates Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas. Those satellites have become a key part of Ukraine’s efforts to fend off a Russian invasion. The government there has been pleading for satellite images for clues of where Russian troops might move next.
US authorities gave Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky a satellite phone so they could stay in touch, according to CNN. And Ukraine is also flying drones made by a Turkish company, Bayraktar, which allows some of its models to be controlled remotely via satellite link. But the reliance on commercial satellites in Ukraine is raising concerns about the power they give to the companies that control them, and also the risk of satellite companies being dragged into the conflict.
This is not the “world’s first satellite war.” That title was given to the Gulf War, three decades ago. Since then, space has become a normal part of modern conflict, says Almudena Azcárate Ortega, associate researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). “In recent years, there’s been a tendency to outsource a lot of this work due to the fact that private companies have specialized knowledge and they are often better able to develop and deploy certain types of space technology,” says Ortega, adding that many space objects are now called “dual-use.” “That means that one satellite can be used at the same time for military purposes, but also for civilian everyday things,” she says.