Updated Jan. 23 at 7:42 a.m. EDT

PARIS — The French government has agreed to open its Spot optical Earth observation data archive and distribute, free of charge to noncommercial users, Spot satellite data that are at least five years old.

The Jan. 23 announcement by the French space agency, CNES, followed a French government commitment made Jan. 17 during a meeting in Geneva of the 80 governments that comprise the Group on Earth Observations (GEO).

CNES said its decision was made in concert with Airbus Defence and Space, formerly named Astrium Services, which since 2008 has been the majority shareholder in the company that commercializes Spot data.

CNES said the move to open up access to Spot imagery, which dates from 1986, “is the first major contribution from the private sector to the construction of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).”

CNES has already begun processing, at its own charge, a first tranche of 100,000 images that will be available later this year.

The French government decision follows a similar decision, made in 2013, by the European Commission to make freely available much of the data from the future Copernicus series of optical and radar Earth observation satellites. At the same time, the commission is taking steps to protect the still-fragile European private sector that makes a business of selling imagery commercially.

Airbus Defence and Space, which invested 300 million euros ($400 million) of its own money to build and launch the Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites — the second is to be launched this year — apparently had similar concerns with respect to the French government policy.

In addition to requiring a five-year time lag between when an image is taken and when it is freely available for distribution, the policy excludes Spot 5 data with resolutions sharper than 10 meters.

Steven Hosford, head of the Earth observation data access plan at CNES, said the 10-meter and five-year cutoffs were determined after negotiations with Airbus Defence and Space.

“We had a long debate with our colleagues at Airbus, and this is the result we came to,” Hosford said in a Jan. 23 interview. “It meets our objective of making the data available for global change studies, while acknowledging the interest we all have in the sustainability of a [commercial] Earth observation sector.”

The archive to be made available is of raw data, sometimes referred to as “Level Zero” products. Customers typically want the imagery processed for a specific area or a specific characteristic.

Hosford said CNES has agreed to assume the cost of processing the first 100,000 images from the archive. After that, he said, customers will be asked to pay nominal fees to offset the processing charge.

Airbus Defence and Space has an established global customer network and uses not only the Spot satellites — and the two French government-financed Pleiades high-resolution spacecraft — but also spacecraft imagery from commercial partners around the world.

Airbus is, with DigitalGlobe of the United States and Telespazio’s e-Geos of Italy, one of the few companies that have achieved enough industry scale to ride out the free-and-open policy without much difficulty. But several other European companies operating lower-resolution satellites with less-diversified customer bases have openly questioned whether they will be able to survive the new era.

An Airbus Defence and Space official said Jan. 23 that the company’s current satellite fleet images the entire Earth several times per year to update its library and that it is the more-recent images that are most in demand commercially.

Images older than five years, the official said, are mainly of interest to science and research organizations and are not a major source of revenue for Airbus Defence and Space’s geo-information division.

The European Commission, which owns the Copernicus satellites, has promised to adjust its data access policy if its side effect is to force private-sector satellite operators out of business.

The U.S. government’s experience since its decision to no longer charge for access to the Landsat satellite data archive is that demand for imagery skyrocketed, spurring new data uses and new economic activity that more than offset the lost revenue — which was not much in any event.

CNES said the Spot system — five satellites launched since 1986, with Spot 5 still operating well past its scheduled retirement — has produced more than 30 million images that now can be used to study environmental change over more than a quarter-century.

Hosford said without the free-distribution policy, much of this imagery would have remained unused in the Spot archives. The Spot library of images, he said, remains the property of the French government and free-access customers will sign license agreements restricting the imagery’s use to research.

In a Jan. 23 statement, CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said the French government’s sustained investment in the Spot satellite series makes it logical that the archive should be opened “to the wider public. With this contribution to the World Heritage program, France is blazing a trail that other nations are soon likely to follow, given the enthusiastic reception for this initiative.”

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.