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Nuclear deterrent

By GeoConnexion - 14th April 2015 - 13:30

Penelope Richardson explains how an award-winning project hopes to use satellite imagery to monitor nuclear weapon development and testingâ©

It is vital to be able to verify that signatories to international treaties supporting peace and disarmament are upholding their commitments and that non-signatory nations are not threatening global stability. It is therefore necessary to find a way to make checks timely, cost-effective and commercially available.â©

Tamara Patton’s winning project idea for this year’s Copernicus Masters European Space Imaging High-Res Challenge addresses this critical issue with a project proposal trialling the sub-daily availability of the SkySat satellite imagery and video capability to assist in the monitoring of prohibited nuclear weapon development and testing activities. â©

The competition awards prizes to innovative solutions for business and society based on Earth observation data and Patton’s idea focuses on creating a research showcase that will test and investigate how very high-resolution imagery can support monitoring of weapon testing activities through clarifying exact locations and the nature of developments.â©

This pilot study will look at North Korean nuclear testing sites where tests occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Patton, who works at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, says: “North Korea has been suspected by the international community of continuing to actively develop nuclear weapons as it seeks to build an operational nuclear force. This has caused great discord both in East Asia and globally as North Korea continues to act in violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions. These factors make it a worthwhile case study for this project”. â©

This is the third year European Space Imaging has awarded the High-Res Challenge and this time, the project has clear international significance. “We chose Patton’s project due to its relevance and timeliness,” says Adrian Zevenbergen, managing director, European Space Imaging. “The proposed case study is addressing the monitoring of nuclear facilities and is based on a clear customer need to assist treaty verification. This is an excellent pilot study focusing on global security issues and aiming to build public awareness. The proposed methodology can easily be extended to sub-daily monitoring of all sorts of facilities”.â©

Satellite imagery for prohibited nuclear test verificationâ©

Globally nuclear testing activities fall under the purview of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 10 1996. It is a multilateral treaty where signatory states agree to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. At the time of creation, this treaty identified various methods to check that signatories were adhering to the agreement, including seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound stations that monitor the underground, the oceans and atmosphere respectively. Radionuclide stations detect radioactive debris. â©

When the treaty was devised, high-resolution commercial satellites and imagery were in their infancy and therefore not included as a verification tool – negotiators saw the technology as too sparse and too costly, and did not expect commercially available satellite options to advance to the great extent they have. â©

Alongside the CTBT is the Nuclear Weapon Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the three pillars of which are disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear technology. The NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.â©

Most countries have agreed to these treaties but for some outliers the treaties are controversial as they believe it divides the world into the nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ by restricting the legal possession of nuclear weapons to those states that tested them before 1967.â©

North Koreaâ©

In 1985 North Korea became a signatory to the NPT but withdrew in 2003. It appears to have carried out explosive nuclear weapon tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 at Punggye-Ri and has been developing nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Many in the international community believe these activities to be in pursuit of a deployable nuclear arsenal – a key step to being able to place a nuclear warhead on a missile delivery vehicle requires design miniaturisation, and commonly, explosive nuclear testing. North Korea has its own uranium mines and these indigenous resources are reported to have been used at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center to generate the fissile material for North Korea’s weapon programme. â©

North Korea’s continued nuclear test threats in defiance of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, coupled with visible activity at its testing sites make it a viable case study for this project. The project aims to provide a better understanding of how satellite imagery and video collected at frequent rates can aid international bodies in carrying out their responsibilities to monitor and understand the nature of nuclear weapon development and testing activities. â©
High-resolution, verification and project structureâ©

SkySat multi-temporal and sub-daily data will be used in this project to aid the international community in deciphering the more precise location and details of prohibited nuclear weapon testing activities, using North Korean test sites as a case example. In the event that a nuclear test occurs during this project’s time period in 2015, SkySat’s data would be used to gather further information on the test site, ideally at a high frequency collection rate with the goal of performing change detection analysis. If no test occurs, the project will still provide valuable research findings on the potential use of Skybox imagery for international observation, treaty verification and confidence-building.â©

At the beginning of the research, monthly and weekly imagery and/or video will be collected over the test site to begin to get a basic understanding of developments, and the in and out flow of materials and equipment at the site. In the long period before a test, these details would include tunnelling activities that could point to the underground location of the test, vehicle movement directions to understand the flow of material in the tunnelling process, and construction details that could help indicate the nature and magnitude of the device being tested. During more active periods at the site or when activities indicate that a nuclear test may be approaching, then more frequent satellite data will be requested to potentially provide hourly updates.â©

Georeferenced optical satellite imagery will provide a basis for analysis allowing researchers to measure quantities, lengths and heights of materials, machines and structures as well as to create 3D models and area maps pinpointing locations and quantifying scales of activity. Frequent satellite imagery collection and HD video capabilities can provide multi-angle views of a site that can be leveraged for analysis in three dimensions. This additional height information for structures can aid analysts in identifying objects or understanding facility capacities. For example, Patton has constructed a 3D model of the uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon from satellite imagery information, and this was useful for estimating the number of centrifuges the facility is capable of containing to enrich material for its weapons programme.â©

By collecting satellite data regularly and continually over a site, in the event of an alleged nuclear test it will be more feasible to create a chronology of events at a suspected test site to determine if the event was in fact a prohibited nuclear test or possibly a legal explosion of another nature. Sub-daily satellite imagery may usefully reveal shifts in activities such as vehicle patterns, material flows, construction activity, soil movement, and high activity locations.â©

Value will be added to the optical visual data by combining this with the radar capabilities of the Sentinel-1 satellite data, which can measure small variations in land levels and show submergence and therefore help pinpoint tunnelling. After a test, the Synthetic Aperture Radar data from the Sentinel could possibly also identify other details such as underground land disturbance or facility changes. Combining this information with all the other verification means could aid global decision makers in deciding on the appropriate international response.â©

The advantages of an NGOâ©

The benefit of an independent non-governmental organisation doing this research is that it is not required to adhere to strict treaty regulations and is able to carry out and publish research with fewer restrictions. The independent and apolitical nature of its work allows it to freely engage with international watchdog organisations on their recommendations and findings from the project.â©

There are currently legal hurdles for using this type of imagery for monitoring and verification. This project aims to independently explore the value of using commercial very high-resolution satellite constellation imagery and the Sentinels to assist treaty organisations in doing their jobs effectively, efficiently with better intelligence outcomes and smaller budgets.â©

This project aims to assist treaty organisations in doing their jobs effectively, efficiently with better intelligence outcomes and smaller budgetsâ©

Penelope Richardson is marketing manager at European Space Imaging (

Read More: Satellite Imaging Defence Military Central Government

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