The quality of commercial space-based imagery is about to take a quantum leap forward with yesterday's successful launch of the Worldview-3 satellite. It's powerful enough to count chickens from orbit. It's a true monster machine.
The commercial satellite imaging market is a sparsely populated but extremely lucrative market. It's worth an estimated $US400 million annually and, until recently, included only two companies: DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. With DigitalGlobe's recent acquisition of GeoEye however, has left the market as a natural monopoly.
The current generation of Earth-facing imaging platforms employed by these firms is limited, not by technology but by government regulation, at a resolution of 41cm for images sold commercially. However, once DigitalGlobe became the only game in town, it set about successfully lobbying the Feds to relax the regulation limits to 25cm, about 30cm wide. That's a huge deal.
It will allow DigitalGlobe to capture an unprecedented level of detail, clarity, and granularity in commercially available satellite photos and data for its government clients like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. It's twice the resolution of current Google Maps data, precise enough that "we can tell you whether it's a truck, or an SUV or a regular car," Kumar Navulur, DigitalGlobe's director of next-generation products, told NBC News, though not quite good enough to read the licence plate — officially, at least.
The 5.5m tall, 2800kg satellite launched yesterday aboard an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and has begun unfurling its 4.5m wide solar arrays ahead of an estimated seven-year mission that could be extended as far out as 2026.
For satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, a $US400 million-a-year global market awaits as soon as the United States relaxes regulations on the sale of higher-resolution images. Per DigitalGlobe's website:
WorldView-3 will be the first multi-payload, super-spectral, high-resolution commercial satellite sensor operating at an expected altitude of 617 km. WorldView-3 provides 31 cm panchromatic resolution, 1.24 m multispectral resolution, 3.7 m short wave infrared resolution and 30 m CAVIS resolution. WorldView-3 has an average revisit time of <1 day and is capable of collecting up to 680,000 km2 per day.
In English, that means the WorldView-3 can capture images in 28 different spectral wavelength bands, allowing it to quickly and easily filter out obstructions like cloud cover or smoke. Seriously, if this satellite were any more powerful, it'd be able to look up your nose. In all, the entire fleet of DigitalGlobe satellites can cover four million square kilometers — that's equivalent to half the contiguous United States — every day.
What's more the image collection system is backed by a clever sorting algorithm that not only automates the filtering process but can also correct colours to mitigate lighting and atmospheric effects — so that, say, the car the CIA is tracking from space will look the same in every shot. The wide array of bands also allows DigitalGlobal to generate a lot more, and a lot better, data that government agencies can use to do societally productive tasks as well, like monitoring the state of our forests and farmlands, tracking the spread of wildfires, even urban infrastructure planning. The algorithms can even be trained to spot specific items, such as sickly trees in an specific orchard, or "all the football fields in Colorado," Navulur quipped to NBC News.