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August 15, 2014

New Eye in the Sky: WorldView-3 will provide improved commercial satellite imagery

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Peter W. Merlin
special to Aerotech News

Photograph by Peter W. Merlin

 
DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 is expected to provide commercial customers with satellite imagery at resolutions previously available only to U.S. government agencies.

The latest in a growing assortment of commercial eyes in the sky was launched Aug. 13 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and successfully delivered into orbit.

In addition to offering panchromatic (black and white) and multispectral color imagery, WorldView-3 was licensed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to collect eight-band short-wave infrared imagery. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation of Boulder, Colo., built the spacecraft.

Until recently, U.S. commercial providers have operated under government license that prohibited selling imagery with better than 0.5-meter (20-inch) resolution to any customer not explicitly granted a waiver by the U.S. Government. This required either taking low-resolution imagery or re-sampling high-resolution images to degrade the picture quality before consigning them to the customer.

In 2013, to better compete against foreign companies not under such restrictions, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., successfully petitioned the Commerce Department and NOAA to relax resolution limits. This past June the company announced it would soon offer imagery from WorldView-3 capable of resolving objects as small as 31 centimeters (12 inches) from an altitude of 383 miles above Earth’s surface. Subsequently, DigitalGlobe revealed that six months after WorldView-3 becomes operational, the company will be permitted to sell panchromatic imagery with a resolution as fine as 25 centimeters (9 inches), as well as 1-meter multispectral and 3-meter SWIR imagery. The spacecraft is also equipped with an atmospheric instrument called CAVIS (which stands for cloud, aerosol, water vapor, ice, and snow) that will monitor the atmosphere and provide color correction data to improve WorldView-3?s imagery through haze, soot, dust or other obscurants.

Photograph by Peter W. Merlin

Neal Anderson, vice president of technology at DigitalGlobe, was anxious to tout WorldView-3’s unprecedented commercial imaging capabilities.

“Imagine you’re in San Francisco,” Anderson said. “With the capabilities of this satellite we could see home plate in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Not only can we see home plate, we can see the players in the field. And if we knew which teams were playing and what color uniforms they were using, we could tell you which team is in the field and which team is batting. We could even count empty seats. And if the stadium scoreboard was big enough, we could tell you the score.”

Outwardly similar to WorldView-2, launched in October 2009, the WorldView-3 spacecraft’s sensor suite will benefit from significant improvements resulting in cost savings, risk reduction, and faster delivery of image products. These changes should improve image quality for services like Google Earth and Bing Maps, and will benefit DigitalGlobe’s other government and commercial customers. High-resolution imagery in both the visible and infrared spectra will be useful for civil planning, industrial development, energy exploration, geological research, and environmental monitoring.

DigitalGlobe operates several imaging spacecraft including Ikonos, QuickBird, and GeoEye, and counts the U.S. government as its most important customer. Although the National Reconnaissance Office has satellites of its own capable of significantly greater resolution, imagery from those systems is highly classified. Therefore, U.S. officials must turn to commercial sources for images that can be shared with allies or the public.
 

Photograph courtesy of Ball Aerospace




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