WASHINGTON — The war in Ukraine has made the world aware of the geopolitical, social and military impacts of satellite imagery. At the same time, the space industry is introducing new capabilities for “very high resolution imagery” that will make commercial spy satellites even more powerful, says a Jan. 16 report by the research and consulting firm Quilty Analytics.
“We are witnessing a transformation in the domain of very high resolution imagery,” the report says. “Established operators are launching next-generation fleets – improving their imaging capacity, pointing accuracy and revisit rates.” Meanwhile, new players that started out with low-resolution satellites “are scaling up to increasingly sharper resolutions once thought unobtainable by small satellites.”
These advances will benefit “demanding customers” that also have large budgets such as U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, says Quilty Analytics. Besides Ukraine, “tinderbox regions” like Taiwan and North Korea are fueling government demand for regular imagery in the event conflict starts, the report says. “Defense customers have the highest standards for resolution, latency and tasking, and are often willing to pay a premium for such features.”
A combination of fleet upgrades by incumbent operators and new satellites from emerging players will result in a ninefold increase in very high resolution satellites by 2028, or more than 100 satellites in orbit.
Most of the future satellites are small, and their imaging capacity will be limited, but their sheer numbers will result in much more rapid revisits, the study says.
Quilty defines very high resolution as spacecraft with a native imaging capability of 50 centimeters or sharper. Resolution refers to how much surface is represented by a single pixel in an image. A 30-centimeter picture, for example, covers a 30×30 centimeter swath of the Earth. Native imaging capability means it does not require additional software processing to enhance the image.
The study identifies four established global players in very high resolution imagery: Airbus, Imagesat International, Maxar Technologies and SI Imaging Services.
Emerging players mentioned in the study include BlackSky, Planet and Satellogic.
A new sector of the industry, meanwhile, is looking to deploy satellites closer to Earth than existing constellations, in so-called very low Earth orbits below 400 kilometers. Quilty says this “presents opportunities to obtain some of the sharpest commercial imagery resolutions of 10 to 35 centimeters.”
None of these satellites are yet in orbit and could be deployed in the next several years by three startups — Albedo, Earth Observant and Skeyeon.