Science and Exploration

The Need for Speed in Satellite Pictures

By Elizabeth Howell
April 18, 2012
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The Need for Speed in Satellite Pictures
Pyongyang, North Korea

When it comes to satellite images, speed matters. Hurricanes can shift tracks in a matter of hours. Flooding can quickly overtake an area, and then recede. The next challenge for mapping providers will be to not only provide these images quickly, but also provide the analysis necessary to act upon the data they present, said Jack Hild, vice-president of United States defense strategy at DigitalGlobe, in an exclusive interview with SpaceRef at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
The company is putting in mid-latitude ground stations to downlink imagery up to three times per orbit, allowing images to get to its website in a matter of hours.

“There’s still room to move and improve. We’re going to see that,” he said.

Breadth of imagery, as well as speed, will come through the company’s new WorldView-3 satellite, whose details were revealed Tuesday.

The satellite, when launched in 2014, will provide up to 0.31 meter resolution, with eight bands across the visual and near-infrared and eight bands in short-wave infrared. The latter band is intended to provide the spectral signatures, and thus the composition, of man-made materials.

Customers of DigitalGlobe span the defense and commercial industries, with users as small as counties or cities. The company also recently expanded its agreement to Microsoft Bing to provide imagery for the well-known, free mapping service.

Despite declines in government budgets, DigitalGlobe sees mapping and GIS applications as a growing industry, Mr. Hild said.

“We’re certainly focused on a lot of the big-level enterprise users, Microsoft Bing being one, and a host of others who do these things. We’re cultivating those markets and still see a lot of opportunity within all of them.”

Speed, accuracy and affordability will be the driving factors of mapping in the coming decade, as well as the ability to overlay data. It will be interesting to see how companies such as DigitalGlobe navigate the need to make further investments to improve the data, with the drive to make images faster and cheaper for their users.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.