Commercial providers of satellite imagery expect their sales to
the U.S. government will grow in the years ahead. A July memo by
the head of Central Intelligence, directing the National Imagery
and Mapping Agency to increase its purchases of commercial satellite
pictures, was an encouraging sign that the U.S. government is interested
in the financial health of the industry, said top executives interviewed
by National Defense.
CIA chief George Tenet wrote to the director of NIMA, requesting
that the agency rely on commercial imagery for government mapping
projects. Tenet said that his goal was “to stimulate, as quickly
as possible, and maintain, for the foreseeable future, a robust
U.S. commercial space imagery industry.”
NIMA still will use government satellite imagery for specific projects,
but only “under exceptional circumstances,” Tenet said.
NIMA’s spokesman, Dave Burpee, said that his agency has had
a long and fruitful relationship with the commercial remote-sensing
industry. “We’ve always been involved to the maximum
extent possible with the commercial satellite industry. It is absolutely
essential to NIMA and what we do,” he said.
“We were pleased to get Mr. Tenet’s letter, because
it helps us to make the case for additional funding,” Burpee
said. “Our problem has always been authorized funding, and
now it appears that that will be resolved.”
The commercial satellite imagery business has become important
to the federal government in the last several years, because it
provides accurate data that are less expensive, and available on
short notice. “Technically, commercial satellite imagery has
been a strategic national asset for a long time,” said John
Copple, chief executive officer of Space Imaging, one of two companies
that currently dominate the U.S. commercial satellite marketplace.
The other company is Digital Globe. Both are based in Colorado.
James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, said that the relationship between the government and the
commercial satellite industry can be compared to the airline industry’s
relationship with the government in the 1930s. “The industry
is at an early stage, with both real security implications and strong
commercial potential,” he said. The government, in the 1930s,
gave the airlines mail-delivery contracts, and it kept them in business
until the commercial market took off, Lewis said.
Burpee agreed that the commercial satellite industry is a strategic
national asset. A case in point was Operation Enduring Freedom.
“We used commercial satellites in Afghanistan. They were extremely
valuable in helping us in low- to medium-priority missions, when
the government assets were engaged in higher priority missions,”
Satellite images also are helpful in homeland security missions,
because the image output is generally not classified, so NIMA can
share images with civilian agencies at the state and local levels,
Burpee said. The civilian government sectors also should work directly
with the satellite imagery companies, Burpee added. “We’re
not the only ones who are supposed to support this industry,”
Lewis noted that, eventually, the pictures provided by satellite
imagery companies might lead to new business opportunities in non-government
areas. “The market still is pretty young, and you don’t
see it as yet spreading through society, as we might have it in
a few years,” he said.
Burpee said it was in NIMA’s interest to keep satellite imagery
companies in operation, but it was also important to encourage more
companies to enter the business. “Having one company is not
a ‘robust’ community. Two is better, and a third will
be coming online soon. When you have more companies in orbit, you
get visit-time increases,” he said. Visit-times are the number
of times a satellite passes over an area in a specific period of
Though Digital Globe and Space Imaging are competitors, each offers
different types of products. Digital Globe’s images are higher
in resolution, for example, but cannot cover as large an area as
Space Imaging’s pictures.
Herb Satterlee, chief executive officer of Digital Globe, said
the outlook is positive for his company.
“I see a big growth for us in 2003. We just opened our doors
in July, and we will be bigger next year,” he told National
Defense. “We’ve doubled our order volume for each of
the last three months in commercial markets.”
Copple also said that his company expects to see “quite a
bit of change in fiscal year 2003.”
“We’re seeing all the government agencies [which are]
tasked with the George Tenet memo, starting the process of evaluating
what the industry has to offer,” said Copple.
The commercial satellite industry has been trying to get off the
ground since the early 1990s, when commercial satellite licenses
were approved initially by the government, said Satterlee.
The suppliers in this industry, he said, “all have suffered
some sort of launch failure.” Fortunately, he added, “Congress
has been extremely supportive.”
Satterlee explained that Congress agreed to invest in commercial
satellites, not just as a cost-saving move, but as a tool of foreign
Space Imaging’s satellite is called Ikonos, and has been
in orbit since 1999. It has enough fuel on board to remain in operation
for more than 10 years.
“Seven years is the projected life for the accounting books,”
said Copple. It hovers at 620 kilometers above the Earth, going
around the planet once every 90 minutes, he said.
The images from Ikonos tend to cover expansive areas of the Earth,
because it is situated in higher orbit. Its pictures are set apart
from its competitor by “our ability to collect large areas
of imagery, all in one pass of the satellite,” Copple said.
“What that results in is a more consistent product,”
If the satellite has to take a picture with more than one pass,
potential trouble can occur, resulting in poor clarity of the images.
“If it was collected on different days, there may be shadows
or clouds,” that mar the quality of the images, he said.
Digital Globe’s Quickbird satellite flies at 450 kilometers
above ground. “We have a seven-year mission life, and we’ve
been operating for about a year. We have enough fuel for eight years,”
“We are about 25 percent better (than Ikonos) in terms of
the amount of information carried in the image—we have more
pixels per square inch,” said Satterlee. “Basically,
we have 2-foot resolution, and they have 3-foot,” he said.
“We have the highest-resolution technology commercially available
out there,” Satterlee said, “though the Ikonos images
cover a larger surface area.”
“Our resolution is better, because we’re lower down
and our scene size is better, if you want to take several scenes
and put them together. Our pictures are larger, so it’s faster
and cheaper to use ours,” Satterlee said.
Both Ikonos and Quickbird have significant memory storage, said
Satterlee. “Our collection capacity makes them really good
products for intelligence collection,” he said.
The two satellites are equipped with similar hardware, said Satterlee.
“The fundamental difference is that is that our telescope
is built by Ball Aerospace.”
It is called an “unaccluded telescope.” He explained
that an unaccluded telescope means that “as you look out,
your field of view is a mirror. In our case, our mirrors are offset,
not in the middle. The signal-to-noise ratio is one of the measures
of the quality of information, and ours is quite a bit higher than
was mentioned in our specification. Actually, it is double our specification,”
The unique design of the Ball telescope has increased the amount
of light coming into the focal plane, which improves the quality
of the image, he said.
Users of satellite imagery have different requirements, depending
on their specific projects, said Satterlee.
Copple said that Ikonos images can be useful for military planners.
“Actual military flying hours can be reduced. We can provide
a more realistic environment for training, and more training can
be done before the pilot goes into the area,” he said.
“Ikonos images are used in the Army’s Topscene mission
rehearsal system,” and the company will soon provide Ikonos
images for the Air Force mission planning system, he said.
“The most mature weapons simulators still don’t have
realistic imagery. What we’ve been able to do is enhance that
through one-meter imagery,” Copple said.
He noted that Space Imaging has sold images to the Navy’s
warfare training center in Orlando, the U.S. Army Simulation, Training
and Instrumentation Command, the University of Central Florida’s
Institute for Simulation and Training, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon,
L-3 Communications and BAE Systems.
However, only 25 percent of its business is with the federal government,
The other 75 percent of Space Imaging’s business comes from
civilian commercial customers. He reported that the company provides
pictures for modeling and simulation projects involving the forestry,
transportation and agriculture industries. “Modeling and simulation
is a broad technology that applies to many markets,” Copple
Satterlee reported that most of Digital Globe’s business
also comes from the commercial sector. “The places we’re
most interested in are cities and counties, where the population
centers are, for urban planning or telecom towers. Most industries
needing satellite images, except for agriculture and forestry, are
tied to the population centers,” he said.
Satterlee said that Digital Globe currently has plans for expansion.
“We’re getting lots of good feedback from our customers,”
and may exercise “the option to duplicate Quickbird in 28
to 30 months,” he said.
Future plans for Space Imaging include plans “to build and
launch a next-generation commercial imaging system, that will have
a ground resolution of half a meter, or about 19 inches,”
said Mark Brender, a company spokesman. “It will be a more
efficient satellite with a higher memory to record, store and download
imagery. We expect it to be operational by 2005 or 2006,”