Commercial Earth Observation | German Imagery Policy Sets No Hard Limits on Resolution

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PARIS — The German government has put into place a two-step regulatory regime for commercial satellite imagery that subjects proposed sales of the most sensitive data to approval on a case-by-case basis, the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Oct. 11.

In response to SpaceNews inquiries about where German policy stood following the announcement that Germany’s TerraSAR-X radar Earth observation system would begin marketing 25-centimeter-resolution imagery, DLR said there is no fixed limit to what may be sold.

Instead, DLR said Germany’s Satellite Data Security Act (SatDSiG) and related law set the general ground rules for commercial satellite data sales to assure that commercial imagery from German satellites does not harm German security and foreign policy interests.

For imagery whose sharpness or whose prospective customers give it special sensitivity, a second organization, the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA), must clear each sale.

“These procedures do not include an absolute limit for spatial resolution under which a data set could no longer be sold commercially,” DLR said in its statement, adding that the policy seeks to foster a commercial Earth imagery market. “However, it is obvious that datasets with higher information content face tighter restrictions.”

DLR, which is Germany’s space agency, is a co-investor with Astrium GmbH in the TerraSAR-X satellite system, which includes the TanDEM-X satellite now in orbit. A nearly identical satellite, called Paz, is under construction by Astrium for the Spanish government and scheduled for launch in 2014. Paz images will be marketed commercially by Astrium and Spain’s Hisdesat.

Astrium announced Oct. 8 that the current TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X system had been upgraded, with DLR’s assistance, and now could offer customers 25-centimeter resolution. Images of this sharpness typically will have a small scene size — 4 by 3.7 square kilometers, Astrium said — which will not appeal to many customers seeking broader-area coverage.

Astrium said the higher-resolution mode, called Staring SpotLight, is particularly adapted to defense and security customers.

The TerraSAR-X announcement comes in the context of attempts by U.S. and French geospatial-imagery companies to persuade their governments to lift the current 50-centimeter-resolution limit on commercial sales optical imagery. A sensor’s resolution, or sampling distance, roughly corresponds to the size of the objects that can be discerned in the imagery it collects.

U.S. and French companies have been the most active on the commercial market for optical imagery. Industry officials said that a decision by one to lower the ceiling on what is acceptable for commercial sale likely would force the other to do likewise.

DLR views Germany’s expertise in Earth observation as having export potential not only in imagery but in satellite manufacturing as well.

Astrium in recent months has been in talks with Russian organizations about the possible sale of a TerraSAR-X-type system for the Russian market, and also has invited other nations to join the new German-Spanish partnership to operate a constellation of X-band radar satellites.

Referring to the Russian market, Gerd Gruppe, who heads DLR’s space department, said a recent German-Russian bilateral meeting made clear Russia’s interest in Germany’s satellite Earth observation expertise.

“This is where a vast market could unfold for German manufacturers,” Gruppe said in DLR’s Countdown publication dated September but distributed in October. “DLR could act as an important broker, bringing together German and Russian competencies.”

The following is an edited text of the DLR statement on current German policy:

The distribution of “high-grade” satellite-based Earth observation data is regulated by the German “Satellitendatensicherheitsgesetz” (SatDSiG), which can be translated to “Act to Safeguard the Security Interests of the Federal Republic of Germany from Endangerment by the Distribution of High-Grade Earth Remote Sensing Data,” or the Satellite Data Security Act. 

The federal law implements the national satellite data-security policy to guarantee that Earth remote sensing data that is commercially available from state-of-the-art Earth remote sensing satellites does not endanger security and foreign policy interests. 

At the same time, the act provides legal certainty for the companies involved, and fosters the commercial development of the market for satellite data, derived products and geo-information.

 The backbone of SatDSiG is a tight two-layered control procedure covering each individual distribution transaction from high-grade Earth remote sensing systems to prevent harm to security interests and ensure the peaceful coexistence of peoples and foreign relations. 

The procedures include technical parameters that define the information content, which obviously include the spatial resolution but also other parameters such as spectral coverage, number of spectral channels and polarization features.

According to the SatDSiG, every request, from both commercial and scientific users, for TerraSAR-X data is subject to a “sensitivity check.” This serves to categorize the order as either sensitive or not sensitive, applying a set of parameters including information content, area to be imaged, who is making the order, and timeliness. 

Every order being categorized as sensitive has to be approved by a national agency, the “Bundesamt für Wirtschaft und Ausfuhrkontrolle” (BAFA), the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control. Only following BAFA approval will the requested data be delivered.

These procedures do not include an absolute limit for the spatial resolution, under which a data set could no longer be sold commercially. However, it is obvious that delivery of data sets with higher information content faces tighter restrictions.