No one will deny that 2020 has been a highly unusual year, mostly due to the pandemic and the global efforts to contain its spread. But, the pandemic didn’t stop other newsworthy events from happening–or from being seen from space.

The Maxar News Bureau partners with trusted and respected media organizations around the world to provide high-resolution satellite imagery and expertise as powerful complements to good journalism. Throughout 2020, the News Bureau has distributed satellite imagery of more than 200 events so far. Below is a look back at the biggest events that could be seen from space in 2020.


Bush fires in Australia

Australia experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons on record from 2019-2020. A national council for fire and emergency services says more than 17 million hectares burned in the fires, many of which were sparked by lightning strikes. Maxar’s WorldView-3 satellite monitored the fires using its shortwave infrared sensor (SWIR), which penetrates through smoke. In the above slider, a smoke-filled image of the fire burning east of Orbost, Victoria, Australia can be seen on January 4, 2020. The image on the right displays the SWIR version of the same image–the orange indicates active fire; blue is vegetation that is still alive; and black shows what has already burned.


Hospitals rapidly built in Wuhan, China

As Wuhan, China rushed to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, patients overwhelmed its existing health system. The city rushed to build two new hospitals, which were completed in less than two weeks. The above GIF shows the Huoshenshan facility, which holds 1,000 beds and was completed in the beginning of February 2020. Many other cities around the globe also set up temporary medical facilities in response to COVID-19 throughout 2020.

Influx of Syrian refugees due to fighting in Idlib Province

The Syrian government launched a military campaign against the Idlib Province as the next phase of the ongoing civil war. According to the United Nations, this offensive caused more than 900,000 people to flee their homes and seek refuge in already overcrowded tent camps, like the one seen above near Kafaldin, Syria on Feb. 16, 2020.


Impacts of COVID-19 emerge globally

Click to expand images.

Across the globe, governments curtailed travel in March 2020 trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Grounded airplanes were parked nose to tail at airports around the world (seen above on the left at the Honolulu, Hawaii airport on March 29, 2020) and down the entire length of runways (seen in the middle above at the Frankfurt, Germany International Airport on March 26, 2020). And with few travelers on the road, rental cars overflowed in parking lots (seen on the right above in Phoenix, Arizona on March 16, 2020).

The News Bureau helped the Washington Post with their investigation into how COVID-19 was affecting Iran, one of several countries believed to have not accurately disclosed their infection and death rates. In the above image of the Beheshte Masoumeh Cemetery in Qom, you can see burial trenches dug near a pile of white lime.

The summer Olympic games were scheduled to start in Tokyo in July 2020. In March, the International Olympic Committee and Japan announced that the games would be postponed until 2021. The image above shows Olympic Stadium (white-roofed, oval building) in Tokyo, the location of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, track and field and soccer games. The silver-roofed building on the right is the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, where table tennis will be played.


COVID-19 changes annual religious events

Religious ceremonies and celebrations regularly bring together large crowds of people, but that didn’t happen in April 2020. The Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia was closed in April as seen above on the left; normally the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine which is located at the center of the mosque, is surrounded by thousands of people. St. Peter’s Square in Rome was empty on Palm Sunday in 2020 (image on the right) when normally tens of thousands of people would pack the square to hear the Pope conduct Mass.


Blue Angels and Thunderbirds complete flyovers

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds conducted flyovers across a number of American cities to show support for medical workers and essential workers fighting the pandemic. On May 2, Maxar collected a series of unique images of the Baltimore-Washington metro area during one of the flyovers. The images above show the planes in flight: the Blue Angels are on the left and the Thunderbirds are on the right. The blue “blur” behind the planes comes from an artifact in satellite imagery when a panchromatic image and a color image are combined. There is a split-second difference in time between the two collections; as a result, fast-moving objects (like cars, planes, windmill blades) show up with this spectral bloom.

SpaceX Crew Dragon launches to the International Space Station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020. It’s the first time in almost a decade that astronauts launched from U.S. soil–and it was the first time they’ve launched in a commercially built and operated spacecraft. Maxar’s WorldView-1 collected the high off-nadir image above of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon 120 seconds after launch; WorldView-1 was orbiting over Nicaragua–more than 1,300 miles away–at the time of collection.


Black Lives Matter murals painted on roadways

As part of a broader protest about racial injustice, activists painted a Black Lives Matter mural along 16th Street NW in Washington, DC. Maxar’s image of the mural shows its proximity to the White House (seen on the right in the image above). Other similar murals were painted in other cities over the summer.

Oil spill in Russia turns river red

More than 20,000 tons of diesel oil spilled in the Artic, causing the Ambarnaya River near Norilsk, Russia to turn red. Maxar’s satellite image shows cleanup operations underway using containment booms to attempt to prevent the oil from flowing downstream. Investigators believe the spill happened because unusually warm weather melted the permafrost that the storage tank was sitting on.

North Korea blows up liaison office in Kaesong

The North-South Joint Liaison Office was built along the border between North Korea and South Korea to help the two countries communicate and reach a peace settlement. On June 16, 2020, North Korea intentionally detonated explosives to destroy the building hours after renewing threats of military action along the border. The before image on the left was collected on May 29, 2020 and the after image on the right was collected on June 22, 2020.

Ethiopia dam construction completed

The Maxar image above shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) along the Blue Nile River in northwestern Ethiopia on June 26, 2020. This massive construction project is controversial since it will become the largest dam in Africa and affect Sudan and Egypt as they are downstream of the dam. The dam started to fill over the summer and some estimates indicate it will take 5-7 years to fill completely.


Iran sinks its mock U.S. aircraft carrier

Iran refurbished its mockup of an U.S. aircraft carrier, towed it into the Strait of Hormuz and practiced attacks on it in July (above). This was the first significant movement of the mockup carrier in years; it was previously used as a simulated U.S. target during a 2015 Iranian naval war games exercise. By the end of the summer, this ship capsized outside Bandar Abbas, a main Iranian port.

Tensions flare along the India-China border

The disputed Galwan Valley and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China became a flashpoint over the summer. The image above focuses on Patrol Point 14 at the LAC where China started to construct tents and shelters before removing them at the beginning of July.


Explosion levels part of Beirut

A large fire started at a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020, causing 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate to explode and destroyed a large part of the port section of the city. The stockpile of common industrial chemicals created a blast equivalent of 1,000 to 1,500 tons of TNT. Move the slider above to see the damage caused to the port. The large crater at the primary blast location is visible as well as extensive destruction throughout the area and a capsized passenger ship across the port. According to the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC), 204 people were killed and at least 6,500 people were injured in the blast.

Oil Spill in Mauritius

The MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship, ran aground on coral reefs on the southeast coast of Mauritius. From the end of July through August, the ship started to sink, leaked a considerable amount of oil into the ocean and broke into two pieces. Oil containment booms were set up to try to contain the oil slick while crews worked to remove as much oil from the ship as possible before towing the forward section out to sea to be sunk.


Wildfires ravage the western United States

Wildfires raged in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado in the second half of 2020, causing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate and more than 6.7 million acres of land to burn. Intense heat during the summer created a dry environment that quickly ignited when struck by lightning or sparked by human activities. The slider above shows the East Troublesome Fire (the second largest in recorded Colorado history) burning Moraine Park inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The left image shows the smoke coming from the fire; the right image uses SWIR to peer through the smoke revealing what is actively burning (bright orange).

Fire burns through Greek refugee camp

A fire swept through the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 8, 2020. The camp had reportedly housed nearly 12,000 refugees and the fire has left many residents homeless after destroying shelters and camp facilities.


Massive earthquake strikes Turkey

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake in the Aegean Sea caused buildings to collapse in Izmir, Turkey on Oct. 30, 2020. The New York Times reported that at least 24 people died and hundreds were injured in Turkey, and two died in Greece. The image above shows rescue workers at a collapsed building.


Central America hit by double hurricanes

Two strong hurricanes followed similar paths to Central America in November 2020. Hurricane Eta made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 storm, producing significant rainfall in the region. Hurricane Iota slammed into the small Colombian island of Providencia as a Category 5 storm. According to Reuters, nearly all infrastructure on the island of about 6,000 people was damaged or destroyed. The slider above shows home and buildings on Northern Providencia Island before Hurricane Iota on the left and the damage after the storm on the right.

Violence develops in Ethiopia

Internal violence in Ethiopia escalated as government forces clashed with a rival party in the northern state of Tigray. POLITICO published a detailed explanation of why these two groups are fighting. As part of this conflict, the government reported that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front destroyed the Aksum Airfield runway by digging trenches and scattering bricks on the tarmac.


Telescope collapses

The radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed in December after two support cables broke in recent months. The National Science Foundation, owner of the telescope which served for 57 years as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, solar system and geospace research, said recently that it would not rebuild the radio telescope, and investigations into its collapse are underway.

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