A Global Game

The proliferation of space activities by countries around the world


In the past decade, the commercial remote sensing landscape hasn’t just changed. It’s also expanded, according to global space consultancy Euroconsult, which reports a four-fold increase in the number of countries with space activities, up from 20 in 2000 to more than 80 today. According to its 2014 report, “Satellite-Based Earth Observation: Market Prospects to 2023,” 33 countries launched Earth observation satellites during the last decade, and 41 countries are expected to do so during the next.

“There has clearly been a proliferation in demand across the globe,” said Bernhard Brenner, head of the Geo-Intelligence Programme Line at Airbus Defense and Space.

Europe, where Airbus is based, has made especially large strides in commercial remote sensing. In a public-private partnership with Airbus, for example, the German Aerospace Centre launched TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X—twin satellites constituting the world’s first spaceborne radar interferometer, which uses microwave imaging to create high-resolution all-weather terrain maps, otherwise known as digital elevation models (DEMs). Subsequently, in April 2014, Airbus introduced WorldDEM, a global 3D DEM constructed using TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X data.

“The accuracy of the base DEM is key to reliable information and merging of data from different sensors and sources,” Brenner explained. “Thanks to WorldDEM, operators of civil and military Earth observation satellites now have a standardized elevation model at their disposal for high-quality image orthorectification—no matter where their acquisition area is located on the planet.”

In April, Airbus launched the WorldDEM Digital Terrain Model, which provides a standardized representation of bare Earth elevation for any point on the globe.

“This addition completes the WorldDEM portfolio, enabling Airbus Defense and Space to provide both surface and terrain elevation information,” Brenner said.

The Germans aren’t alone. The French, for example, launched the seventh iteration of their SPOT electro-optical (EO) satellite (built by Airbus) in 2014, and the Italians will launch the second generation of their COSMOS-SkyMed (built by e-GEOS) synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites beginning in 2016. All three nations are collaborators in the European Commission’s Copernicus program, which leverages unclassified data from shared EO and SAR satellites across missions of mutual interest, such as environmental protection, emergency management, and national security. The intergovernmental European Space Agency (ESA) launched the first of these shared satellites, Sentinel-1A, in April 2014, and the second, Sentinel-2A, in June.

“The data from the whole [Copernicus] program is going to be given to industry for free,” said analyst David Germroth, principal of international government affairs and business development firm PACE Government Services. “It’s only 5- and 8-meter resolution, but that’s good enough for a lot of things users want to do with geospatial data.”

According to Germroth, commercial remote sensing knows no boundaries.

“The Argentinians are putting up an L-band satellite with the Italians,” he continued. “And the Japanese are throwing a ton of money into laser communications with EO and radar capabilities. They’re really determined and they’re moving really quickly, so we’re going to see them catch up to a lot of our own capabilities within 10 years or less.”

Even small nations are getting in on the action, according to Kevin O’Connell, president and CEO of Innovative Analytics & Training and co-author of U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Satellite Industry: An Analysis of Risks.

“Countries like Vietnam and Egypt are both experimenting with SmallSat systems and constellations, and others—like the United Arab Emirates—are being pioneers by saying, ‘We’re not going to build space systems, but we’re going to buy what’s commercially available from everyone else,’” O’Connell said.

For the United States GEOINT Community, the globalization of commercial remote sensing creates both opportunity and challenge.

“It means the GEOINT Community is going to have to do a couple things,” O’Connell said. “One, it’s going to have to innovate on its own in order to stay ahead of the curve. And two, it’s going to have to improve its ability to leverage capabilities from the outside.”

Added Orrin Mills, director of the Source Operations Group at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), “The genie’s out of the bottle. There’s no going back [to when the United States and Russia were the only players in space], so we have to look at this as an opportunity to embrace new technologies and new capabilities, and to use them to our advantage against our adversaries.”

“It’s a fully autonomous surface vessel, but the foundation is applicable to the undersea environment in addition to the surface-ship environment,” Galsgaard said.

Feature image courtesy of Airbus

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