WHEN A COMPANY called HawkEye 360 wanted to test its wares, it gave an employee a strange, deceptive task. While the worker stood in Virginia, he held the kind of transceiver that ships carry to broadcast their GPS locations. Usually such a signal would reveal his true position to a radio receiver, but he’d altered the broadcast to spoof his GPS position, making it seem like he was in fact off the coast of Maine.

But his company’s instruments, which in this test were carried by Cessnas flying routes over East Coast waters, picked up on the chicanery. Now HawkEye 360, the satellite startup that made the detectors, plans to send its first three instruments into space later this month. Called Pathfinder, the cluster of satellites will work together to locate and make sense of radio emissions beamed up from the ground. With it, HawkEye 360 gains access to communications information that has mostly been controlled by governments.

Lots of companies have launched, or hope to launch, satellites that snap pictures of Earth. But HawkEye 360 wanted to do something different: scan the planet for its radio-frequency signals instead. That kind of intelligence has mostly been the domain of militaries and intelligence agencies. But with ever-cheaper and simpler radio technology, and the relative ease of building small satellites, the time seemed right for private industry to give it a shot.

The company began after Chris DeMay, an expert in radio frequencies who’d spent 14 years working in the intelligence community, attended a conference called SmallSat a few years ago. He saw all of those picture-taking satellite companies, and realized that the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum could also be used to monitor the Earth.

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