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Science

Satellite Sentinel project to monitor Southern Sudan from the sky

A project founded by George Clooney will acquire, analyze and distribute satellite images of Sudan. It aims to act as a watchdog against outbreaks of violence, terrorism and genocide after Sunday's independence poll.

Satellite image of roads in Sudan

Experts haven't seen anything worrying in the images so far

Citizens in Southern Sudan will vote in a referendum on Sunday to decide if the region splits from Sudan. The vote is part of a peace deal struck in 2005 to end the country's decades-long civil war.

Just before the start of 2011, a project spurred by the American actor George Clooney and other Hollywood celebrities began as a way to monitor events in Sudan using satellite imagery.

Known as the Satellite Sentinel Project, it will use commercially available satellite imagery of the North-South Sudan border region and allow UN and other officials to monitor what's going on from a public website.

'Aiming to detect, deter and interdict war crimes'

A United Nations handout photo shows a voter's finger being marked with ink during the ongoing registration process for the scheduled referendum

The separation referendum is slated for Sunday

"We're not focused primarily on the election, per say," said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesperson for the Enough Project, a Washington, DC-based anti-genocide group that is one of the several organizations comprising the Satellite Sentinel project.

"Rather, we're aiming to detect, deter and interdict war crimes, including potential genocide," he told Deutsche Welle. "Our focus is potential threats to civilians, potential threats to human rights and human security."

There are six private, commercial imaging satellites orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes that pass over Sudan. Clooney and his organization are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase the images, which become available one to two days after the photographs are taken.

"The commercial satellite imagery that we're obtaining would be looking for potential threats to civilians - such as troop buildups, troop movements," Hutson added. "But also evidence of acts of war: bombings of villages, razed villages."

High-resolution imagery

The satellite images have a resolution of up to 50-square centimeters (20-square inches) of ground per pixel on a computer screen, according to Einar Bjorgo, a Norwegian satellite imaging expert at UNOSAT - the UN entity tasked with acquiring and analyzing satellite images for various relief and development agencies both inside and outside of the United Nations.

Satellite image of New Orleans

The satellite images used will have a resolution of 50 centimeters

"That means one can identify individual houses, one can monitor the growth of returnee areas," he told Deutsche Welle. "Then we can also see damaged infrastructure, if a building is down, or if a building has been burned. One cannot identify individuals, nut it is possible to look at damaged infrastructure."

Historically, these types of images have been used to monitor wars or disaster situations after the fact, such as after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, or the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004.

Satellite images remain expensive

Bjorgo's team members are among the experts who will analyze the satellite photos as they are distributed by the satellite imaging companies. However, he pointed out that these images don't come cheap.

"Typically if you were to purchase a 'scene,' a 10-by-10 kilometer (6.2-square-mile) scene, you'll pay $1,000 (770 euros) depending how fresh, or how old the scene is," he said.

That price can rise quickly depending how recent the image is, and if the satellite needs to be reprogrammed to focus in on a specific area. Two of the major American satellite imaging companies, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, have been providing images for this project for free, he added.

Illustration of a satellite in Earth orbit

Six satellites will deliver images from Earth orbit

Bjorgo said he hasn't seen any evidence of violence or displacement in the first set of images taken prior to the election and added that he hopes it continues that way as the next set of images comes in over the weekend.

There are other humanitarian experts from Harvard University who will also be pouring over the imagery along with reports from people on the ground in Southern Sudan to post information on the Satellite Sentinel website.

"This is the first time that satellite imagery has been combined with Google Map Maker's open source platform, plus field reports, and crowd-sourced information, to stop a war before it starts," Hutson said.

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico

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