On Aug. 4, a massive amount of ammonium nitrate stored at a port in Beirut exploded, causing hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries as it leveled surrounding neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.
Christoph Koettl, a visual investigations journalist at The New York Times, wanted to learn more about the ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut seven years earlier. To do so, he would need the help of Stephen Wood 2,600 miles away in Colorado and satellites 300 miles above them both.
Wood runs the news bureau at Maxar Technology, a space technology company based in Westminster. The news bureau works with journalists around the world at no cost to their news outlets, providing satellite imagery that can confirm crucial details of a story. Wood and Koettl were able to track the ship in Beirut and discover it’s still there, submerged not far from where it dropped its deadly cargo.
“For larger stories, I often send them requests for very specific images and locations that I have already researched. For example, to track a motorcade in centralPyongyang as an indicator of Kim Jong Un’s whereabouts,” Koettl said.
In 2020, Maxar’s imagery showed the rapid construction of hospitals in Wuhan, China, and mass graves in Iran, where the government lied about coronavirus’ spread. It displayed the extent of wildfires in the U.S., an earthquake in Turkey, hurricanes in Central America, and an oil spill in Russia.
“We work with Maxar when we need detailed imagery from the sky,” said Tim Meko, deputy graphics director at The Washington Post. “The stars — or satellites — don’t always align due to weather or flight paths, however when they do the results are pretty fantastic.”
When television reporters in India heard China had constructed a village in the sovereign Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, they emailed Wood coordinates of the suspected village. Pulling from Maxar’s database of images, updated daily and dating back 20 years, Wood could see the creation of a new village.
“A journalist may just be starting their story and thinking of a research topic, or have heard something from a human source embedded in their organization
or elsewhere, but they don’t have quiet enough to go on yet,” Wood explained in a recent interview. “Given the visual aspects of what we’re able to do, it complements (journalism) very well. Sometimes we can either refute or confirm the reporting.”
Along with natural disasters, Maxar’s technology especially excels at showing armed conflicts, which are often difficult and dangerous to report on. Its satellite imagery has proven the claims of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, and clearly shown the Myanmar military’s devastating destruction of their villages.
“Attacks against civilian infrastructure or displacement can be easily tracked through satellites,” said Koettl, from The New York Times. “A big added value of remote sensing is that satellite images come with a specific time stamp and coordinates, which can be useful to establish precise timelines.”
Last year, Maxar imagery helped The Times uncover key details about the bombing of a migrant detention center in Libya — a poten- tial war crime. “It turned out that (there) was an earlier airstrike, 11 minutes earlier, that targeted a military site next to the migrant center, a crucial part of the story,” Koettl recalled.
Maxar’s constellation of satellites captures the entire Earth, without exception, shining a light on the most secretive nations — and likely frustrating them as well.
The news bureau has ethical boundaries — it won’t show U.S. troop movements or work with outlets in countries facing U.S. sanctions, such as Iran — as well as occasional conflicts of interest. It may decline to offer free photos for an exposé on an oil company that is a customer of Maxar’s, charging instead. But it denies only a few of the hundreds of requests it receives each year, according to Wood.
Not all requests involve serious geopolitical matters. Meko, at The Washington Post, used the imagery to show Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossoms at peak bloom. And other outlets recently used Maxar imagery to determine a monolith in Utah was placed there between July 2016 — when imagery shows no monolith — and October 2016, when the monolith first appears in Maxar’s satellite photos.
“People were like, we don’t know when this thing showed up,” Kristin Carringer, Maxar’s spokeswoman, recalled of the mystery before her company tracked the monolith in a desert its satellites do not photograph often. “It could have been here for five years, or 10 years, or a million years, or maybe an alien brought it.”
“We still haven’t ruled that out yet, Kristin,” Wood interjected.
“OK, fine, aliens may be behind it, but we were able to narrow it down, to know that sometime in these three months it showed up.” (The monolith was removed by four Utah residents more than a week after it was discovered. They eventually returned it to the Bureau of Land Management.) Nearly every day in a year unlike any other, the Maxar News Bureau was tracking, monitoring, and explaining the events of an everchanging world.
“We are often chatting over the weekends or at nighttime. ‘Did you see what just happened?’ or ‘Did you see that image we just collected?’” Wood said.
“It just never stops, there’s always something that’s happening.”
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Justin Wingerter: firstname.lastname@example.org or @JustinWingerter