Free Copernicus Data Will Impose Change on Commercial Earth Observation Firms

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PARIS — The arrival of free data from Europe’s Copernicus environmental satellite network will cause one or more commercial Earth observation firms in Europe to go out of business or change their focus, the head of one such company said June 3.

Miguel Bello Mora, chief executive of Madrid-based Deimos Space, said the company’s current satellite, Deimos-1, will lose much of its market when Europe’s Sentinel-2 satellite is launched in the coming year.

Sentinel-2 is part of the European Commission’s Copernicus program, which includes multiple satellites with different sensors to be deployed in the coming two years. Copernicus managers have promised that the satellite data will be available on a free and open basis.

“Many talk about the need for free and open access to data, and this is fine,” Bello Mora said in an address to the Global Space Applications conference here, organized by the International Astronautical Federation and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. “But there is a problem for the market. We made an investment in Deimos-1. We sell data and we survive, more or less. But as soon as Sentinel-2 arrives with free data, we’ll be killed.”

The 20-nation European Space Agency, which has financed part of Copernicus, and the European Commission have agreed that free and open data distribution will stimulate demand for data as it has in the United States since Landsat satellite data was made free.

As more data are made available, more downstream businesses will be created to address the expanding market. Bello Mora did not dispute that jobs will be created as a result of Copernicus, although he questioned claims that tens of thousands of new jobs will result.

“Free and open data will create some jobs in the value-added chain — at least potentially. But for sure, a lot of jobs will be destroyed,” he said. “I know this is controversial and that most of you probably think that open and free data is the way to go.”

For companies with a business in low- or medium-resolution satellite imagery sales, the way to survive in the Copernicus era may be to move to higher-resolution optical satellites and to some radar satellite applications, Bello Mora said.

This is what Deimos is doing. Deimos-1, launched in 2009, has a ground-sampling distance of 20 meters, with an image swath width of 650 kilometers. The satellite can capture 4 million square kilometers of images per day. Among Deimos’ customers is the U.S. government, for which Deimos-1 images the full continental United States, cloud-free, every two weeks.

Deimos-2, built in collaboration with Satrec Initiative of Daejeon, South Korea, is scheduled for launch June 19 as one of several secondary payloads aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr silo-launched rocket from Russia’s Yasny spaceport.

Deimos-2 has a ground-sampling distance of 75 centimeters in black-and-white mode and can collect up to 150,000 square kilometers per day of imagery. Its swath width is 12 kilometers from its planned polar orbit at 620 kilometers.

The 310-kilogram Deimos-2 satellite is able to swivel its imager up to 45 degrees off nadir, permitting it to image any given plot of Earth every two days.

Deimos recently concluded an agreement with Dauria Aerospace of Germany, Russia and California under which the two companies will exploit a satellite constellation including Deimos and Dauria spacecraft, the first of which are scheduled for launch in 2015.

Deimos’ ambitions in the high-resolution satellite market were on display during the recent competition in Peru for a satellite for civil and defense applications that would have a ground resolution sharper than one meter.

Deimos and partner Satrec lost that competition, placing third in a field of four bidders, according to the Peruvian government assessment. Bello Mora said the company is preparing other bids of a similar nature. One near-term prospect is Colombia, whose government is weighing up to eight bids for a submeter surveillance satellite.

 

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