Commercial Remote Sensing | More Competition Looms in European Imagery Market with Upcoming Satellite Launches

by

PARIS — An already crowded European market to supply commercial Earth observation imagery is about to see further competition as four high-resolution French optical satellites and one German radar spacecraft prepare for launch.

Added to these will be one optical and one radar satellite being built for the Spanish government. At least some of the Spanish capacity is likely to be made available for commercial use, although a commercial structure has not been determined.

The two French Pleiades satellites to be launched in 2011 were 100 percent financed by the French government, but a portion of their capacity will be reserved for commercial sale, likely by Spot Image of Toulouse, France, whose workhorse product currently is the Spot 5 satellite.

For the moment, the French government is not financing the Spot 5 follow-on spacecraft, two of which are under construction for Astrium Services, which, through its French and German divisions, owns both Spot Image and Infoterra.

Infoterra’s TanDem-X radar satellite, which has been long delayed, is designed to work with Germany’s TerraSAR-X satellite already in orbit. The two satellites were built as part of a partnership between Astrium Services and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency.

These satellites and their associated commercial sales forces will join Germany’s RapidEye AG of Brandenburg, which operates a purely commercial constellation of five medium-resolution optical Earth observation satellites and has targeted the agricultural and insurance markets.

RapidEye, which has grown into a 130-employee company since its satellites were launched in 2008, is assembling a network of regional distribution partners including MDA Corp. of Canada, the RapidEye system prime contractor, which is a distributor in North America.

RapidEye has contracted with about a dozen distribution partners to market its satellite data in China, Brazil, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico as well. RapidEye announced in April that Metria, a division of Sweden’s Lantmateriet mapping and land-registration agency, had become a RapidEye distributor for Scandinavia, the Baltic nations and Iceland.

On May 20, RapidEye said it had broadened its partnership with S2Bvisio of France for the development and distribution of agricultural services based on RapidEye imagery. Pasture monitoring and biomass management will be areas of special focus, RapidEye and S2Bvisio said.

On the radar side, Italy’s e-Geos company, a joint venture of Telespazio of Rome and the Italian Space Agency, has access to a portion of the capacity on Italy’s Cosmo-Skymed radar observation satellites. Three of the four spacecraft are in orbit, with the fourth scheduled for launch within the next year. Italian government authorities have already started funding work on a second-generation Cosmo-Skymed system.

Italian officials have been vague about exactly how much Cosmo-Skymed capacity would be made available for commercial sale by e-Geos, and on what terms.

This year, e-Geos contracted with the European Union’s Joint Research Center to provide optical satellite imagery from the Ikonos and GeoEye-1 satellite owned by GeoEye Inc. of Dulles, Va. According to e-Geos, the contract, which is valued at 5.4 million euros ($6.7 million) per year for up to four years, makes e-Geos “the largest provider of satellite data to the European Union and confirms its status as the European multi-mission hub for high resolution data.”

The European Union, which uses optical satellite data to monitor agricultural land use as part of its agricultural subsidies, is likely to become the biggest customer for satellite Earth observation data in Europe. The European Union’s executive commission is not only purchasing data, it is co-financing the construction of its own satellites with the 18-nation European Space Agency.

GeoEye-1 and Ikonos data will be provided through the e-Geos processing facility in Neustrelitz, Germany, which is co-operated by DLR.

DLR, whose operations are often involved in commercial as well as standard government-agency projects, is also a partner with DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., for the distribution in Europe and the Middle East of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 imagery.

DLR and European Space Imaging of Munich, Germany, operate a facility that in April inaugurated a satellite direct-access facility to receive imagery from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 high-resolution optical satellite. The facility permits European Space Imaging to task the WorldView-2 satellite directly for a broad coverage area including Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa.

“Local, regional access improves the dynamics of our collection capability, image quality, production and distribution of imagery solutions to all of our customers,” Adrian Zevenbergen, managing director of European Space Imaging, said in a statement following the inauguration.