DigitalGlobe intends to finance the construction and launch of a second next-generation imaging satellite exclusively through up-front contracts with non-U.S. government customers, according to a company spokesman.
Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe unveiled plans Oct. 4 to launch a satellite dubbed WorldView 2 in 2008 to go along with the previously announced WorldView 1, which is slated to launch in 2006. Both satellites will be capable of taking pictures sharp enough to distinguish objects as small as half a meter across, but WorldView 2 also will be able to collect highly detailed color imagery, the company said.
And whereas WorldView 1 is being financed largely by a $500 million data contract with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), WorldView 2 will be underwritten by commercial customers who want guaranteed access to high-resolution imagery, DigitalGlobe spokesman Chuck Herring said.
Building two satellites on nearly concurrent schedules is standard operating procedure among U.S. satellite imaging firms, giving them a readily available back up in case of a launch or on-orbit failure at far less cost than building a new satellite from scratch. The practice has paid off — all three U.S. providers of high-resolution satellite imagery lost their first spacecraft in launch failures.
Assuming the first spacecraft launches successfully, having the spare gives companies the option of launching the second soon thereafter to provide greater imaging frequency of time-critical targets.
Nevertheless, DigitalGlobe had never publicly discussed plans to build and operate WorldView 2 until now. “We’ve always been internally planning that, though this is the first time we’ve announced we’re working on a second satellite,” Herring said.
The announcement does reveal one change in plans, Herring acknowledged. Previously DigitalGlobe planned to include a color, or multispectral, imaging capability on WorldView 1. But schedule considerations — the company is required under its NGA NextView contract to launch WorldView 1 before the end of 2006 — prompted the company to defer the multispectral capability to WorldView 2, he said.
David Burpee, a spokesman for the NGA, said WorldView 1 without the multispectral capability remains compliant with the terms of DigitalGlobe’s NextView contract. He also said the NGA expects to take advantage of both WorldView 1 and WorldView 2.
DigitalGlobe currently operates the QuickBird satellite, which can collect black-and-white, or panchromatic, images with 0.61-meter resolution. The satellite, launched in October 2001, also collects color images with 2.5 -meter resolution. It is expected to operate until 2009.
WorldView 2 will be capable of taking multispectral pictures at resolutions as sharp as 1.8 meters, DigitalGlobe said. In addition, the satellite will have eight multispectral bands for added information, whereas QuickBird has only four.
Herring said up-front purchase commitments for WorldView 2 data are being finalized with non-U.S. government organizations, but declined to provide details . He said DigitalGlobe will not need to approach the debt or equity markets to help finance the spacecraft.
Satellite remote sensing expert Edward Jurkevics of Chesapeake Analytics of Arlington, Va. , said DigitalGlobe needs a second WorldView satellite to take full advantage of market opportunities outside of its NGA contract.
“One of the problems is that NGA’s data purchasing will consume the vast majority of the capacity of this panchromatic sensor, not leaving much for DigitalGlobe to sell commercially,” Jurkevics said.
But the NGA also intends to take advantage of WorldView 2, Burpee said. Black -and-white imagery is useful for surveillance and determining precise locations, while color imagery is helpful for applications such as categorizing terrain and detecting camouflage , he said .
Color imagery is generally more appealing for all customers, according to Jurkevics. “One shouldn’t underestimate that people like color imagery better than black and white,” he said . “Whether you’re a military analyst or someone looking at something on Google or Yahoo, people prefer color imagery.”
Herring said WorldView 2 ‘s multispectral capabilities, including the added color bands, will increase its utility for applications across the board, including forestry and agriculture.
Herring would not comment on how time on each satellite will be divided between government and commercial customers . “Obviously we’ve been talking to all of our customers about both satellites and what their needs are,” he said.
DigitalGlobe’s announcement follows on the heels of news that its main competitor, Orbimage of Dulles, Va., will purchase the third industry player, Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo. Analysts have estimated that the deal will give Orbimage up to 60 percent of the market .
Orbimage spokeswoman Nancy Coleman declined to comment on DigitalGlobe’s announcement.
WorldView 1 will be launched on a Boeing Delta 2 rocket, Herring said. The DigitalGlobe has yet to make launch arrangements for WorldView 2, he said.