Seattle’s BlackSky and other satellite imaging ventures bear witness to Beirut devastation

Beirut blast aftermath
An image captured by the BlackSky Global-4 satellite shows the site of the Beirut chemical explosion at 8:22 a.m. local time Aug. 5. Image resolution is about 1 meter (3 feet) per pixel. (BlackSky Global Monitoring Photo)

The aftermath of this week’s Beirut chemical explosion has been covered in triplicate by U.S. satellite imaging systems — with other nations’ satellites, drones and on-the-scene videos adding perspective as well.

All that imagery helped outside observers quickly verify that the killing blast was caused not by a terrorist bombing, but by the blow-up of a years-old stockpile of ammonium nitrate. The chemical is typically used as fertilizer but can be turned into dangerous explosives.

The Aug. 4 explosion killed at least 100 people, injured thousands more, sent out a shock wave that damaged buildings up to 6 miles away, and generated a seismic shock that was felt as far away as Cyprus.

Among the satellites in position to document the aftermath was BlackSky’s Global-4 satellite, which was built in Seattle for BlackSky and launched last August. BlackSky is a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, and has offices in Seattle as well as Virginia.

BlackSky is due to have two more Global satellites launched as soon as this week, as rideshare payloads on a SpaceX Falcon 9 under an arrangement with Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc. They’re among the first satellites built for BlackSky by Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Europe’s Thales Alenia Space. The deployment timetable calls for 16 BlackSky satellites to be on duty in low Earth orbit by early next year.

Two of BlackSky’s competitors, Planet and Maxar Technologies, also shared before-and-after views of the Beirut blast scene today:

BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet have all won study contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office, under a program aimed at assessing the companies’ ability to provide imagery for the defense and intelligence communities.

NRO says it will start a new round of commercial imagery procurements in late 2020, with an eye toward satisfying government requirements into the 2023 time frame. So the efforts to capture over Beirut isn’t merely meant to satisfy curiosity; they serve to demonstrate what the companies can do for national defense.

In addition to the satellite pictures from those three U.S. companies, there’s a surfeit of sobering imagery from other satellites and camera-equipped drones. Here’s a sampling:

To contribute online to Beirut relief efforts, check out the Lebanese Red Cross and Impact Lebanon on Just Giving. This report was first published on Cosmic Log.

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