Questions Surround Private-Sector Role in GEOSS Effort

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Operators of commercial imaging satellites are supportive of an international effort to boost coordination in Earth observation but cannot be expected to donate services free of charge, industry officials said.

The coordination effort in question is the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a 10-year program conceived in 2003 to maximize the use of existing assets to change the way nations use Earth observation for purposes such as economic growth and environmental and disaster monitoring. Under the agreement, developed nations that launch Earth observation satellites will coordinate among themselves to fill gaps in the availability of specific types of sensors.

The GEOSS charter was signed in January by nearly 60 nations, and the first organizational meeting is slated for May 2-4 in Geneva.

Sponsors of the GEOSS project have asked commercial imaging satellite operators to participate, but officials with these companies say this cannot be done on a voluntary basis.

“The most critical issue [for bringing commercial operators into the system] is the challenge of adequate financial sponsorship,” said Mark Tuohy, vice president of international sales at Orbimage Inc. The GEOSS project “is clearly something only governments can underwrite,” he said.

Although commercial imaging satellite operators have won substantial government business in recent years, the industry is still trying to recover from a disastrous start in which four of the first six satellites launched by U.S. companies were lost.

Orbimage, located in Dulles, Va., owns the OrbView-3 spacecraft, which collects imagery that can distinguish ground objects as small as 1 meter across. But Orbimage had to file for bankruptcy after its first high-resolution satellite was lost in a launch failure, and only emerged in early 2004.

Rival DIGITALGLOBE of Longmont, Colo., operates the QuickBird high-resolution imaging satellite, but lost its first two spacecraft. Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., which operates the Ikonos imaging satellite, lost its first spacecraft in a launch failure.

“This is a young industry that has undergone a difficult birth,” Tuohy said. “Our industry has a history of financial challenges. It’s plain to see that at this time and for the foreseeable future, industry cannot indulge in philanthropic ventures. We exist only by returning revenue for our work.”

Tuohy’s comments were echoed by Chuck Herring, a spokesman for DIGITALGLOBE. “We are willing to support these programs and are willing to support this effort, but we also have to support a business model,” he said. “It will take more thought on how the commercial imagery companies will support this.”

Commercial spacecraft demonstrated their utility in disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean . Most of that imagery was provided by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which buys millions of dollars worth of products per year from Orbimage, DIGITALGLOBE and Space Imaging under a program called ClearView. Herring noted that the companies also provided some imagery directly to the affected nations and relief organizations under bulk-purchase programs.

Supporting the tsunami relief efforts is a good example of where GEOSS could involve industry to provide benefits, Tuohy said. “The capacity is there and the mandate for use is there,” he said. “What is missing is an organized and comprehensive framework for commercial industry to support GEOSS.”

It will be up to each individual government participating in the GEOSS effort to figure out how to get the private sector involved , said Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We need to reach out internationally to each country to bring their private sectors in and then bring all of this together,” Lautenbacher said.

R.F. Heidner, a scientist with the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., said there are some complex business cases that will need to be worked out to fully involve commercial sensors in GEOSS.

“Going forward, we are going to have to look at what are the real drivers of operating in space, and how many of these providers really have to be in space,” Heidner said. “We then have to look hard for where the money is going to come from to sustain these systems.”