Commercial Imagery Shines in Disaster Relief Role

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Like the preceding years, 2005 proved eventful in the U.S. satellite remote-sensing arena, featuring a major industry consolidation move, a string of natural disasters that highlighted the value of commercial imagery, and fresh doubts about the government’s ability to maintain data continuity in the Landsat program.

The step toward consolidation came Sept. 16, when Orbimage of Dulles, Va., announced an agreement to purchase competitor Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., for $58.5 million. The move will reduce the number of U.S. companies that operate imaging satellites to two.

“I think 2005 was a watershed year,” said Matt O’Connell, chief executive officer of Orbimage. “The long-awaited consolidation that finally occurred is going to result in a stronger, better industry that can better serve the needs of all its customers.”

Space Imaging’s future came into question when the company was passed over in 2004 for a contract under NextView, a U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) imagery purchasing program. Those contracts, which will underwrite a new generation of commercial imaging satellites, went to Orbimage and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.

“Looking forward, the government can be assured — especially the Department of Defense and the intelligence community — that with this merger the commercial imaging industry is here to stay,” said Mark Brender, a spokesman for Space Imaging. “It’s healthy to have two strong companies competing to provide the best service to the government.”

Regulatory approval for Orbimage’s purchase of Space Imaging is still pending, though Brender said it could come as soon as late December.

Meanwhile, commercial imagery, having already demonstrated its utility in support of U.S. military operations related to the War on Terrorism, in 2005 emerged as a critical factor in responding to Mother Nature’s wrath. It began in January following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, and continued the following autumn when a pair of hurricanes smashed into the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“That is a fundamental shift in our business, and I think the attention to national disasters will not go away,” O’Connell said. “What the world discovered was that satellite imagery provided a terrific resource.”

During the disasters, the NGA drew on an imagery purchasing vehicle dubbed ClearView, the predecessor to NextView.

“The wide availability of imagery in such a quick turnaround earned recognition for its value in understanding events in remote corners of the world, and for supporting critical applications,” Jill Smith, chief executive officer of DigitalGlobe, said in a written response to a request for comment.

Smith replaced Herb Satterlee as DigitalGlobe’s chief executive in early November, a move that several industry officials see as a precursor to a stock offering or a sale of the company.

Brender said the tsunami brought a great deal of media exposure for commercial imagery — including a satellite photo of the devastation that made page 1 of the New York Times. But the imagery was no less useful for emergency workers responding to the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he said.

“Flooding is harder to discern by the untrained eye than the widespread devastation which is caused by earthquakes and tsunamis, so the imagery has less of a visual impact for the mass media, but still a high value for those who are trained and know how to use it,” Brender observed.

Another development that raised the public profile of commercial imagery was the June 26 launch of Google Earth, an Internet search engine for satellite and aerial photographs. Three days later, Orbimage signed an agreement to become the exclusive imagery provider to MSN Virtual Earth, a Google Earth competitor.

Brender said the advent of the imagery search engines could be the proverbial “killer application that the industry was always waiting for.” O’Connell said it could help spur the development of products and services that have not been conceived of yet.

Google Earth became the subject of controversy in October and November when officials in India, South Korea and Thailand and other countries expressed concern that the accessibility such programs provide to pictures of sensitive areas could threaten their security. Industry leaders countered that the Web sites merely aggregate data that is already available and produced by an industry which is heavily regulated by the U.S. government.

While the news for the commercial imaging industry was largely upbeat in 2005, it was less so for the scientists and natural resource managers who have come to rely on medium-resolution data from the U.S. government’s Landsat satellites over the past 30 years. After a failed attempt to commercialize Landsat, the government invested the program’s future in a plan to add a land imaging sensor to a new generation of polar orbiting-weather satellites. That plan unraveled this year, making it all but certain that there will be a gap between the demise of the existing Landsat satellites — both of which have serious problems — and any replacement spacecraft.

As a reminder of how precarious the Landsat situation has become, the existing Landsat 5 satellite experienced a technical failure of its back-up solar array drive Nov. 26, and engineers are still unsure of whether this will mean the end for the 21-year-old satellite.