Next GeoEye Satellite Could Fly Lower for Improved Resolution

by

PARIS — The GeoEye-2 commercial optical Earth observation satellite scheduled for launch in the spring of 2013 could sharpen its view to detect objects just 25 centimeters in diameter if its orbit were maintained at 500 kilometers in altitude, the satellite’s prime contractor said June 5.

GeoEye-2, owned by Earth imagery services provider GeoEye Inc. of Herndon, Va., is intended to operate from a near-polar low Earth orbit at 681 kilometers in altitude, a point from which it can image objects of 34 centimeters in diameter or greater with an image swath width of 14.5 kilometers.

Even that lower resolution will be too sharp to permit Herndon, Va.-based GeoEye to sell GeoEye-2 imagery to non-U.S. customers unless it receives a special waiver from the U.S. government.

Current U.S. policy, whose effects on GeoEye and its principal competitor, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., have never been calculated, prohibits the sale of commercial imagery sharper than 50 centimeters.

Tony Frazier, GeoEye’s senior vice president for marketing, said the company has been successful in obtaining waivers to sell imagery from the GeoEye-1 satellite to non-U.S. customers, mainly governments, with a ground sampling distance of less than 50 centimeters. GeoEye-1 can produce imagery as sharp as 41 centimeters in diameter.

In a June 5 conference call on GeoEye-2’s status and prospects, Frazier said the company is optimistic that similar waivers will be made for GeoEye-2, and is also hopeful that the 50-centimeter threshold will be re-evaluated by the U.S. government. He said GeoEye has “at least four major governments” interested in GeoEye-2 imagery.

Perhaps the biggest competitor to GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, Astrium Geo-Information Services of Europe, operates under similar constraints imposed by the French government.

Paul McDonald, GeoEye-2 space vehicle manager at Lockheed Martin, said during the conference call that lowering the orbit to sharpen resolution would naturally reduce the volume of territory covered in any given orbit.

Brian O’Toole, GeoEye’s chief technology officer, said GeoEye views the 681-kilometer altitude as the optimal orbit and that “unless there is a customer with a major requirement, we’re probably not going to change it.”

GeoEye-2 is under construction by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., and will be launched between April and June 2013 aboard a Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services Atlas 5 rocket.

GeoEye has said the satellite program is on schedule and is expected to cost $835 million, a figure that includes the satellite’s construction, launch and insurance.

Of that figure, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has agreed to pay $337 million. NGA had said it would deposit $111 million once GeoEye-2 is ready for final integration and testing, a milestone that Lockheed Martin announced had been reached.

GeoEye announced June 6 that it had completed the milestone that triggers the $111 million payment.

GeoEye officials had always expressed optimism that the payment would arrive despite the threats to the 10-year EnhancedView program managed by the NGA under which the cost reimbursement was agreed.

The administration of U.S. President Barak Obama had proposed, based on an analysis by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, to make deep cuts to EnhancedView. The program is valued at $7.3 billion over 10 years starting in late 2010 and is about evenly split between GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

It remains unknown when the EnhancedView cuts will take effect. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, in deciding to restore the program to its original status at least through the beginning of fiscal year 2014.

The committee said there needs to be a thorough assessment of the role of commercial imagery in U.S. military applications before a decision is made that would have the effect of threatening the viability of GeoEye or DigitalGlobe.

In a June 4 summary of its reasoning, the committee said that while the U.S. government would not be legally liable if one of the two companies ceased operations or was merged into the other, it should not be indifferent to such an eventuality.

“[T]he government’s wild swing in demand has exposed two healthy companies to financial risk, and, if one is forced to exit the business, will lead to a monopoly in the market and a narrowing of the government’s options for future procurements,” the committee said.

GeoEye officials, in explaining their offer in early May to purchase DigitalGlobe, said a merger would still leave plenty of competition in the global market, notably from Astrium, and would protect the U.S. industrial base by making it more likely that the surviving company remains financially healthy.