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Satellites have played an important role in disaster monitoring from space since the 9/11 terrorist attacks which resulted in the loss of life of 3000 people. Back on Sept.11, 2001, they showed the devastation caused by the terror attacks by four commercial airplanes that were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

NASA’s science programs were “called into action” as the agency worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New York to fly sensors over the affected areas on aircraft – looking for aerial contaminants – and used satellite resources to monitor from above.

Maxar’s IKONOS satellite — the only high-resolution commercial satellite in orbit at the time — was used to observe the areas that had been targeted. “These were the first unclassified satellite images released to the public of the 9/11 attack locations,” according to a statement from Maxar Technologies cited by space.com. 

IKONOS satellite continued to capture more recent views as rebuilding efforts have taken place over the last two decades. 

Satellites’ geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) allows for “seamless intelligence sharing across U.S. combatant commands and with coalition partners.”

In the decades since the attacks, Earth-observing satellites have grown much more sophisticated, with higher resolutions, better accuracy, greater collection capacity, faster agility, and more spectral bands. 

Methods for transmitting space-based data to Earth have also improved, allowing defense teams to more rapidly collect, downlink, upload and disseminate commercial satellite data. 

GEOINT assisted in locating Osama bin Laden, who was killed on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan, by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6. Maxar satellite imagery was used to study the structure of bin Laden’s compound and create a simulation of the area, which aided in training the military teams that participated in the raid. 

Earth-observing satellites also aid in disaster monitoring and emergency response. Satellite imagery has proven especially useful for tracking severe weather events and environmental impacts, ranging from hurricanes and tsunamis to earthquakes, floods, fires and oil spills, from space.