About two weeks ago, a satellite called Iceye-X1 hitched a ride into orbit aboard an Indian rocket. It’s about the size of a suitcase, and has already sent its first picture, constructed out of microwave radar reflections, back to Earth.
“I personally love this image,” said Rafal Modrzewski, the chief executive of Iceye, a Finnish start-up that built and operates the satellite, referring to a scene from the Noatak National Preserve in Alaska. “It’s full of snow, but it’s so much more complex than you think at first.”
The swath of the park visible in the first image is 1.2 gigabytes of data that encompasses an area about 50 miles long by 25 miles wide. It was made using a technology known as synthetic aperture radar, or SAR.
The capability of Iceye-X1 is not by itself groundbreaking. Edward R. Caro, who worked for decades on spaceborne radar instruments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said it is roughly comparable in performance to what he and his colleagues put on NASA’s 5,000-pound Seasat satellite early in his career. “It would be analogous what we were flying in 1978,” he said.
But Iceye-X1, which weighs less than 220 pounds, takes advantage of the miniaturization of modern consumer electronics, largely using off-the-shelf components, and the cheaper rides to space now available.
“I can’t praise them enough for what they’ve done,” said Mr. Caro, who provided some consulting to Mr. Modrzewski’s team.