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New Chinese satellite can capture hi-res images of entire US cities in seconds

A satellite image of the San Francisco bay area. (Photo by Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
December 30, 2021

A new Chinese satellite known as Beijing-3 can rapidly capture high-resolution images of entire U.S. cities in a matter of seconds, new research revealed earlier this month.

In June, China’s Beijing-3 satellite performed a high-resolution scan of the 1,470 square mile area in and around the San Francisco Bay Area in just 42 seconds, according to researchers involved in the project who documented the satellite’s capabilities in a December issue of the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Spacecraft Engineering.

According to the Chinese research team, the satellite was able to gather highly detailed images that could be used to identify individual military vehicles and the weapons they carry across an entire city. In a recent interview on China’s state-run CCTV-13, the Chinese scientists said the satellite can capture high-resolution imagery of an entire area, such as the 3,915 mile Yangtze River, in a single pass.

Business Insider reported the Chinese satellite’s ability to capture such high-resolution imagery across such broad areas is unmatched by American satellites.

The American-developed Worldview-4 imaging satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, technically has a higher image resolution than the Beijing-3. The Worldview-4 can capture images at a resolution of 12-inches-per-pixel, as compared to Beijing-3’s highest quality of 20-inches-per-pixel. But while the Worldview-4 has a higher image quality, Beijing-3 can observe a larger area at a time and, according to its researchers, has a response time that is two to three times faster than that of the Worldview-4. The U.S.-made Worldview-4 was also retired in 2019, after just three years in operation, over issues with its stabilizing mechanism.

While most satellite cameras have to be kept still while taking high-definition images and can only capture straight strips of land as they orbit above the area, Beijing-3 project lead scientist Yang Fang said the satellite’s camera can pitch and yaw up to 10 degrees per second with no negative impact on image quality.

While traditional satellites with fixed cameras typically have to work with other satellites or fly multiple passes over a region, the Beijing-3 can work by itself to cover the same area in a single pass.

The South China Morning Post reported that artificial intelligence would enable the Beijing-3 to capture imagery from 500 distinct locations and revisit those areas up to 100 times per day.

The news of China’s advanced imaging satellite comes amid concerns that China is outpacing the U.S. in its space technology development. In an interview earlier this month with CNN, Gen. David Thompson, the vice chief of space operations in the U.S. Space Force, said China is “building and fielding and updating their space capabilities at twice the rate we are” and “very soon, if we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us.”