32 Nations Sharing Satellite Imagery as Part of MGCP Network

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PARIS — The growing number of radar and optical Earth observation satellites should make it easier for users to collect timely imagery, regularly refreshed, from anywhere in the world. But that is not the case, according to U.S., Canadian and European officials.

A lack of common technical standards, imagery overlaps and the reluctance to share some commercial data all make it difficult to assemble up-to-date maps of a given crisis area in short order.

Enter the Multinational Geospatial Co-production Program (MGCP), which started a decade ago and now counts 32 member nations, each making contributions to a central database in return for being able to access the data.

Each nation’s access is calculated by how much that nation has contributed — whether it is satellite vector data or some other service useful to MGCP.

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has been instrumental to the MGCP’s functioning, said the network reduces duplication in image-taking and has already proved itself in crisis areas.

MGCP nations agree to specific imagery technical standards and to image quality limits such as a ceiling on the amount of cloud cover and the level of off-nadir pointing by a satellite as it takes an image.

Perhaps the best way to measure how successful MGCP has been is to look at the inability of a much smaller group of nations — France, Italy, Germany, Spain and others in Europe — to form their own mini-MGCP network, the Multinational Space-based Imagery System, or Musis..

Musis was designed to reduce duplication among European nations, allowing each to contribute, in cash, imagery or other in-kind services, to the network.

Part of Musis’ problem is that it included satellites that are strictly military, such as France’s Helios and Germany’s SAR-Lupe, in addition to dual-use systems such as Italy’s Cosmo-Skymed and Spain’s Ingenio and Paz.