Editor’s note: Ten years ago, a 9.0 magnitude, six-minute earthquake triggered a tsunami on March 11, 2011, in Japan. These forces of nature caused the cooling systems of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi to shut down, resulting in a nuclear meltdown. At the time, Maxar’s QuickBird, IKONOS, GeoEye-1, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 satellites were collecting high-resolution imagery of Earth. This blog post tells the inside story of how Maxar team members used these satellites to collect critical information about what was happening in the area and deliver it quickly to customers, first responders and the public via the media.

March 11, 2011

Disaster #1: an earthquake of catastrophic strength

The earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time, about 80 miles offshore of the city of Sendai, Miyagi prefecture.

Within an hour of the earthquake striking, tsunami waves started hitting the eastern coast of Japan. Waves were reported to be nearly 33 feet tall, and some reached 6 miles inland. The wall of water wiped out almost everything in its path.

Meanwhile, at the Mission Operations Center in Colorado, Maxar’s Collection Planning Team quickly reprioritized what the satellites would image so they could collect the hardest hit regions of coastal Japan as soon as possible.

March 12, 2011

Disaster #2: a tsunami’s devastation at an incredible scale

QuickBird, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 collected more than 43,000 sq km of high-resolution imagery along Japan’s devastated northeastern coast on March 12, 2011. Imagery collection footprints are visualized above.

At the time of this disaster, Maxar‘s legacy companies—DigitalGlobe and GeoEye—were the only ones with commercial imaging systems on orbit collecting sub-meter resolution imagery, which would prove critical in assessing the full extent of the damage. Leveraging our ability to plan and quickly change what the satellites needed to image, Maxar worked closely with our customers and coordinated the satellites to ensure that they collected the most imagery possible over areas in need of observation and relief. As the first post-quake imagery began to reach our headquarters facility, our team of analysts came into work at night and started sifting through the imagery to find and highlight the intelligence needed most by customers.

“Starting the day after the earthquake, both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye dedicated imaging capacity every day to collect a vast region in eastern Japan affected by the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear incident,” said Koji Ueda, CEO and President of Japan Space Imaging Corporation (JSI). “JSI and Hitachi then distributed these high-resolution images, which unveiled in detail the damages to each building over the region, to the central government ministries, local governments and infrastructure companies, helping them to grasp the status of the disaster and plan and execute their rescue and recovery missions.”

This gallery shows analysis reports provided to customers on March 12, 2011, that point out some of the most serious damage.

March 13, 2011

Disaster #3: a nuclear emergency emerges

The earthquake caused the three nuclear power plants closest to the epicenter to shut down. The tsunami waves came over ocean walls and damaged the backup generators that were running the cooling systems of two of the plants, most notably at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. As these nuclear cores started overheating, Maxar’s Collection Planning Team concentrated their efforts on imaging the facilities so safety personnel could monitor them from a safe distance.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 1 Reactor Building in Okuma, Japan, exploded on March 13, 2011. WorldView-2 imaged it through the clouds.

March 14, 2011

The world was riveted and waited for news about the nuclear reactors. Maxar’s analysts and Collection Planning Team closely coordinated with customers to monitor the reactors and the overall relief efforts in Japan.

“It’s a careful balancing act to task the satellites to collect the most relevant areas while in a constantly changing scenario like this disaster, which is why I often came into work at night to adjust collection plans with the most recent information,” said Amy Opperman, Senior Project Manager at Maxar. “On March 14, 2011, it just happened that one of the reactors exploded between two of our satellites imaging it, providing key insights into a developing situation.”

In the slider above, the panchromatic image from WorldView-1 was collected one minute before the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant Unit 3 Reactor Building exploded. Three minutes later, WorldView-2 collected a color image that showed the same building after it exploded.

March 15 and 16, 2011

Unit 2 and 4 Reactor Buildings at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded on March 15, 2011. Because of its ability to slew and collect at a steep angle, QuickBird imaged the plant on March 16, 2011, at a 51 degree off-nadir angle and shooting between the heavy cloud cover. In the gallery below, click on each image to make it bigger. The image on the left is a wider shot that demonstrates how the high off-nadir angle allowed us to see under the clouds. The image on the right is a zoomed-in version that allows you to see the destruction in better detail.

During the four days following the earthquake and tsunami, Maxar’s QuickBird, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 satellites collected more than 300,000 sq km of imagery over most of Japan’s northeastern coast, which was downloaded more than 95,000 times from our website.

Fukushima in recovery

In 2016, Japan’s government estimated the cost of dismantling the reactors, decontaminating the affected areas and paying compensation would cost about $200 billion. In 2019, the Maxar News Bureau contributed current satellite imagery of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant site to a Bloomberg report, which stated that about 1,000 tanks were at the site to store treated radioactive water resulting from of the 2011 disaster. According to reports filed by Japan with the International Atomic Energy Agency, work to remove fuel from the reactors and dismantle the units continues.

Maxar’s WorldView-3 collected this image of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant on Oct. 8, 2019.

Below is a view of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant on Feb. 28, 2021.

Monitoring disasters in the future

Disasters—both involving forces of nature and those that are man-made—are not new. Humans will continue to leverage the view from space to evaluate the extent of change on Earth on a daily basis.

Maxar is now preparing to launch its next-generation satellites. Once operational with the rest of the Maxar constellation, these six WorldView Legion satellites will triple the Maxar constellation’s capacity to collect 30 cm satellite imagery.

Consider if this triple disaster in Japan occurred in the future with WorldView Legion on orbit. Maxar will have the capability to view the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant nine times in a single 24-hour period with the possibility to collect 140,000 sq km of the highest resolution imagery available.

Responding to disasters like these is part of how Maxar fulfills its Purpose, For A Better World. We believe that our capabilities have the potential to help the world at large, particularly in crisis situations.

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