It’s time to tidy the garden: a new satellite belonging to DigitalGlobe will be launched into space today with the sole aim of taking images four times higher quality than currently possible and selling them to customers such as Google Maps
A satellite launch today will pave the way for images four times more detailed on Google Maps and other websites that buy photographs taken by US-based DigitalGlobe.
The company is one of the world’s largest sellers of satellite imagery, supplying most online mapping services, the US government and NASA.
Until June, the US imposed legal restrictions on how detailed commercial satellite photography could be, although military satellites were free to use higher resolutions. Companies like DigitalGlobe were limited to capturing a 50cm square of ground space per pixel, but are now free to go as low as 25cm, giving four times the number of pixels for a given photograph.
Today’s launch by a Lockheed Martin rocket will see a new satellite placed in orbit to take advantage of this new limit. Worldview-3 will be able to take images with four times the resolution of current machines. Thanks to short-wave infrared sensors it will also be able to generate images regardless of cloud or smoke cover.
This means that Google Maps customers will eventually be able to zoom in far closer than they are currently able to, and make out much more detail.
The machine, called WorldView-3, has a specified mission life of seven and a quarter years, but an estimated service life of up to 20 years. It will be able to photograph 680,000 square kilometres every day.
The planned orbital height for the new machine, 617km above the Earth’s surface, will give the satellite a 31cm pixel. But by flying lower it can increase that to 25cm.
It will be six months after launch that commercial companies, including Google and Microsoft, will be able to buy those images and integrate them into their own products, such as Google Maps and Earth.
Although the US military does have its own satellites, it too relies on data from DigitalGlobe. US federal agencies such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency are customers, as are NASA.
The company, which is the only provider of high quality imagine in the US, estimates that sales of higher resolution images could unlock a further $400m in annual revenue.
“It means we’ll be able to solve new kinds of problems, and as a result, grow our business,” chief executive Jeffrey Tarr told Reuters in June.
Advanced electro-optical sensors on the new satellite and short wave infrared equipment will also allow the company to identify tree species and the moisture content of soil.
Current satellites operated by the company are technically capable of a resolution of 41cm, although have been banned from going below 50cm until the recent rule changes. So the company’s existing fleet of five satellites will now be able to improve quality.
DigitalGlobe is now lobbying the US government for even further relaxation of the resolution restrictions, calling for a 10cm per pixel maximum.
Google also has audacious plans to collect its own high-resolution satellite images in the future. In June this year it announced that it had agreed to buy Skybox Imaging for $500m. The company has already launched two of its own satellites via Russian rockets, and eventually plans to build a network of 24.
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