Satellites aim to protect Sudanese
Monday, February 21, 2011
Satellites aim to protect Sudanese
In a first, DigitalGlobe uses its space spies to try to stop violence before it starts.
By Bruce Finley, The Denver Post
Posted: 02/21/2011 01:00:00 AM MST
LONGMONT — Human-rights activists, Hollywood stars and private Colorado satellite controllers have teamed up to try to prevent atrocities in Sudan.
Their scheme starts with three fridge-size satellites tilting in space — like giant digital cameras that can zoom in anywhere — capturing details down to gun barrels on tanks.
That imagery from volatile Sudan, which just held elections after a war that killed 2 million, then moves from DigitalGlobe's control room here to activists coordinated by the Washington D.C.-based Enough Project. They post the images, with analysis, on the Internet (satsentinel.org).
The idea is that, if people everywhere can see atrocities in the making, they'll blizzard leaders with messages demanding swift preventive intervention.
"If more people are aware of what is happening, it has a stabilizing impact," DigitalGlobe analysis chief Stephen Wood said Friday as he reviewed recent images showing army tent camps, oil installations and roadblocks. Wood previously deciphered satellite intelligence for the U.S. Department of Defense.
It's too early to tell whether the Sudan experiment in deterrence is making a difference.
Sudan's northern rulers so far have respected South Sudan voters' decision to separate and form a new nation.
"The idea that it will be hard to move heavy machinery without being eyewitnessed will likely factor into conflict-related calculations," said Enough Project co- founder John Prendergast. "And any hard evidence we get of human-rights or cease-fire violations will be turned over to the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Security Council."
Movie actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and others provided $750,000 in seed money. A Harvard University humanitarian group is helping plan where to position satellites for surveillance each week.
Field workers in Sudan also are helping to identify targets. For example, two workers recently traveled to the contested border at Abyei and interviewed southbound Sudanese migrants after their bus crashed through a military roadblock designed to keep them in northern Sudan. Satellites subsequently focused on Abyei and surrounding terrain.
In Colorado, the project is one of many missions for Robin Bahr, 37, and other satellite control-room technicians working at banks of computer screens.
They're also typing out commands to satellites that supply a steady stream of images of upheaval in Egypt, Yemen, Iran and other hotspots across the Middle East and North Africa.
Customers include U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Last week, DigitalGlobe technicians tracked a supertanker ship hijacked off Oman by pirates who then parked it off Somalia.
Wood on Friday also was reviewing images of the central Aladi square in Tehran, Iran. "Can't see any large groups of people, no signs of security," he said, zooming in on the front windshield of a white sedan. "Traffic is flowing."
Friday was prayer day for Muslims. It wasn't until Sunday, long after DigitalGlobe's satellite had passed by, that thousands of opposition supporters clashed with club- wielding police in Tehran and other cities in protests against the Islamic regime. Official police sources said there were not conflicts, though the protests were confirmed by a human-rights group, witnesses and Internet videos and posts.
Images from Cairo showed tanks positioned around Egypt's government-controlled TV-radio building — confirming military control of that city.
And students in Yemen were squaring off against security forces at university gates as drivers circled, watching.
Demand for satellite imagery is growing, DigitalGlobe officials said, noting that the Longmont firm now employs 650 people.
But the Sudan "satellite sentinel" project breaks new ground by anticipating atrocities, positioning satellites, and harnessing imagery to head off death and destruction.
Stopping human-rights atrocities in war-ravaged regions is a mission the company can embrace, Wood said.
"We've got a responsibility," he said. "And we've got the capability to use this technology to help out."
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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