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Maxar Technologies: The eye in the sky tracking invasion of Ukraine
Expect to hear more from it as Putin's war wears on
As Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, the name Maxar has suddenly taken on more significance with detailed eye-in-the-sky images of military movements on the ground being passed to media – including a 40-mile convoy headed for Kyiv. But what is Maxar, and where did it come from?
There are a number of commercial satellite companies providing products not only to paying customers but also publicly publishing imagery of selected areas. Many of these firms are favourites of the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community, which largely bases itself on Twitter and was popularised by the legendary OSINT-and-debunking collective Bellingcat.
One of these companies is Maxar, headquartered in Colorado, USA. Maxar traces its history back to the 1960s on its website though its current incarnation's roots lie in Worldview Imaging Corporation, aka DigitalGlobe – a name probably familiar to anyone who's spent an idle hour poring over Google Earth's satellite imagery.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, DigitalGlobe forged close links with the US government, being licensed to launch commercial image-gathering satellites – technology that had previously been dominated by the world's militaries. Contracts in the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars reportedly followed.
Fast-forward to 2017, and a merger between DigitalGlobe and Ford Aerospace-owned SSL (aka Space Systems/Loral) led to the creation of today's Maxar, dual listed on NYSE and TSX.
Maxar's satellites are serious revenue-generators, as we reported in 2019 when its WorldView-4 bird suffered a gyroscope failure that led to the constructive loss of the satellite. WorldView-4 generated $85m in one year. The company reported revenues of $1.72bn for FY2020, and net income of $303m. The year before it made $46m on revenues of $1.77bn.
The company's satellite imagery has been regularly cited by journalists covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including (in the example below) the Economist's defence editor, as well as other news brands such as US TV network CNN, financial newswire Reuters, and more.
Russia may be botching its invasion so far, but plenty of mass en route. The Russian convoy which “stretches over nearly 17 miles of roads” is now around 17 miles from the centre of Kyiv. Juicy target for Ukraine’s TB2 drones, you’d think. (📸: @maxar) pic.twitter.com/nZ4LNnPyXE— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) February 28, 2022
In a report this week Reuters said Maxar had told it that "additional ground forces deployments and ground attack helicopter units were seen in southern Belarus, less than 20 miles (32 km) north of the Ukraine border," suggesting the company is actively interpreting the imagery it collects and bundling that into intelligence products for the news media (El Reg is not one of its partners).
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The company's close links to the US government persist. In 2019, NASA awarded it the contract for building a Moon-landing module, while this year Northrop Grumman won a $935m habitation module contract that required integration with a propulsion module being built by Maxar. Three years ago it reportedly sold its space robotics arm MDA for $765m.
The Crunchbase crowdsourced funding-tracking website claims Maxar has raised $1bn in post-IPO debt, without citing a timeline or further sources. More concretely, a syndicated article from the Benzinga financial news website last year reported Maxar had raised $400m from the stock markets.
While commentators speculate whether Vladimir Putin has underestimated Ukrainian resistance, we can likely expect to see a lot more of "©2022 Maxar Technologies" being attached to startling satellite imagery of the war as it happens. ®