COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Imaging satellite operator DigitalGlobe is adding a shortwave infrared sensing capability to its planned WorldView-3 satellite that will open up a host of new civil and military applications, the company said April 17.

The new capability will enable customers to pick up details that often do not show up in conventional visible imagery, Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe said in an announcement here at the 28th National Space Symposium.

“Shortwave infrared is really good at detecting differences between materials,” said Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe founder and chief technical officer. In an interview here, he reeled off a variety of civilian and commercial applications for the data, including mineral exploration, vegetation moisture monitoring and water-resource management.

Scott declined to discuss the military and intelligence applications of shortwave infrared. But he said civil and national security applications weighed equally in the company’s decision to invest in the sensor.

DigitalGlobe’s primary costumer is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which buys commercial satellite imagery on behalf of national security customers. The NGA in 2010 awarded DigitalGlobe and competitor GeoEye 10-year imagery contracts with a combined value of over $7 billion that require the companies to invest in new satellites and infrastructure.

Scott declined to disclose the cost of the eight-band infrared sensing capability, but said it would not appreciably affect the $650 million cost of the Worldview-3 program. That total includes the satellite, its 2014 launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket and other costs, he said.

DigitalGlobe is on the hook for the entire cost of the Atlas 5, built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance, even though the satellite requires only a fraction of the rocket’s full payload-carrying capacity. Scott said DigitalGlobe is looking for a secondary payload whose owner would help defray the launch costs, but has made no firm decision to pursue that strategy.

WorldView-3 is being built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., is supplying the main sensor, which will be capable of taking black-and-white pictures with 0.3-meter resolution — meaning objects of that size and larger can be detected — from an orbital altitude of just under 620 kilometers, Scott said.

The satellite will be capable of taking multispectral imagery at 1.2-meter resolution and shortwave infrared data at 3.7-meter resolution, Scott said.

DigitalGlobe directed Exelis to add the infrared capability to the WorldView-3 imaging camera about a year ago, Scott said.

Chris Young, president of Exelis Geospatial Systems, said the infrared capability is an additional sensor module that will be placed in the satellite’s main imaging camera.

DigitalGlobe currently has three healthy imaging satellites on orbit: QuickBird, launched in 2001; WorldView-1, launched in 2007; and WorldView-2, launched in 2009. Each satellite is more capable than its predecessor, and together they collect about 1 billion square kilometers of imagery per year, or six times the land surface area of the Earth, Scott said.

Scott said the constellation provides revisit frequencies of two times per day, and in some cases three or even four times per day. The WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 satellites have control moment gyros that provide a high degree of agility that increases flexibility and imaging frequency, Scott said.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...