SAR images show sea ice in North West Passage

Easing ice conditions promise to open Arctic waters to regular commercial shipping traffic (ICEYE)

26 March 2018

Radar images of Arctic sea ice may help development of new northern shipping routes being made possible by the region’s warming climate, thanks to an agreement between two Helsinki-based companies focussed on tackling their icy environment. Naval architect Aker Arctic Technology will be using SAR images from ICEYE, the first Finnish company to orbit a commercial satellite, to improve its understanding of ice conditions in a bid to develop new shipping routes and appropriate ships. The initial agreement is for one year.

ICEYE bills its 70kg X1 as the world’s first sub-100kg synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite; it was orbited in January by a PSLV flight from India. Two sister units are expected to launch this year and ICEYE plans ultimately to have a constellation of more than 18 of its SAR microsatellites.

ICEYE-X1 orbits 15 times daily at an altitude of 500km, and depending on location to be imaged can revisit as frequently as every 12 hours. The first three satellites provide 10x10m resolution. The larger constellation will eventually provide average revisit frequency of just 3 hours for almost any location, according to ICEYE.

Writing in his company’s newsletter last September, Aker Arctic managing director Reko-Antti Suojanen pointed to several 2017 shipping achievements as evidence of an impending dramatic expansion of Arctic shipping. A liquified natural gas carrier sailed the entire Northern Sea Route from Norway to Korea, and a Finnish icebreaker set the record as the earliest ship to sail through the North West Passage. A Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker also cruised to the North Pole in record time. “Although we know that technology, power and the size of ships have developed over the years, one reason for these records is the fact that ice conditions have become easier in arctic navigation,” wrote Suojanen.

WORKING WITH ESA

Separately, ICEYE and the European Space Agency have agreed to “mutually explore opportunities provided” by the company’s X-band SAR technology. ESA’s director of Earth observation, Josef Aschbacher, described the collaboration as “helping us move distinct steps closer to our goals as we explore the potential in the New Space industry”.

Also in a busy March for ICEYE, Norwegian ground station operator and EO services provider Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) agreed to purchase ICEYE-X1 data. KSAT operates polar ground stations in the Arctic and in Antarctica and a growing mid-latitude network, giving it more than 130 antennas for access to polar orbits. KSAT currently supports more than 100 satellite missions, including ICEYE-X1, with ground station services.

ICEYE was founded in 2014 as a spin-off from Aalto University. Its operations have been funded in part by Finnish government and European Union Horizon 2020 grants.

Sea ice between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia imaged by ICEYE-X1 (ICEYE)