Oct 12, 2012

Astrium Services Girds for Competition with DigitalGlobe-GeoEye Combo

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

(SpaceNews, P. de Selding). TOULOUSE, France — Astrium Services is counting on two Earth observation satellites in final assembly here to give it sufficient firepower in 2013 to do battle with the merged assets of U.S. satellite Earth imagery providers DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.

The two satellites, the high-resolution Pleiades 1B and medium-resolution Spot 7, will be operated in tandem with their recently launched twins to create a four-satellite constellation spaced 90 degrees apart. That will minimize the time period between a request for imagery and when the imagery is collected.

Patrick Le Roch, director of Astrium Services’ Geo-Information division, said the proposed merger of DigitalGlobe and GeoEye “creates a de facto duopoly between us and the merged U.S. companies.”

Briefing reporters here Oct. 8 during a visit to the Pleiades 1B and Spot 7 assembly facilities, Le Roch said Astrium Services estimates the global addressable market for Earth observation imagery is about 1.8 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in 2012.

The market, he said, is growing at a rate of 7 percent per year, with the high-resolution component growing faster than the other niches.

Le Roch said the “addressable” qualifier is meant to exclude markets that are not open to international competition. The biggest of these is the U.S. government, whose National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) buys commercial satellite imagery for U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

Under pressure to cut costs, the NGA has begun reducing what had been a 10-year, $7.3 billion program to purchase imagery and related services from DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and Herndon, Va.-based GeoEye. These reductions, which so far have hit GeoEye harder than DigitalGlobe, forced the companies into a merger agreement now being vetted by the U.S. Justice and Defense departments.

Whatever comes of the merger, Le Roch gave no indication that Astrium Services expects a large piece of NGA business even if the agency now is forced to deal with a monopoly domestic supplier.

Le Roch did not break down the current addressable market by application beyond saying that most of it was government-related. He said Astrium Services, whose Spot series of medium-resolution optical Earth observation satellites all but created the market starting in the late 1980s, has carved out a market share that is over 50 percent of the total.

The problem for Astrium Services, whose Earth observation assets include the German TerraSAR-X and TanDem-X radar satellites, is that the fastest-growing segment of the commercial market is for high-resolution imagery.

The Spot 5 satellite, in orbit since 2002, provides images whose sharpest resolution is 2.5 meters, with a swath width of 60 kilometers preserving its ability to be useful for wide-area mapping.

Spot 5, which operates in polar orbit at an altitude of 832 kilometers, is already five years beyond its contracted service life. While it continues to function well, it will be deorbited in 2015 by the French space agency, CNES, in keeping with CNES’s policy to assure that satellites nearing retirement are taken out of service early enough to prevent them from dying in their operating orbits and adding to the population of orbital debris.

Following the French government’s determination that 20-plus years of paying for Spot satellites is enough, Astrium Services was obliged to spend 300 million euros of its own money for the two follow-on satellites, Spot 6 and Spot 7.

Spot 6 was launched in September aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Spot 7 is set for launch aboard the same rocket in mid-2013, according to Jean Dauphin, director of Earth observation, navigation and science at Astrium France.

Spot 6 and Spot 7 have a ground resolution at nadir — when the camera is pointing straight down — of 2.2 meters, meaning they can detect objects of this diameter and larger. After a process known as resampling, the images achieve a resolution of 1.5 meters from the satellites’ 695-kilometer polar low Earth orbit.

Spot 6 and Spot 7 will be operated in conjunction with the two Pleiades high-resolution satellites, which were financed by the French government and have a military mission as well as a commercial one, with Astrium Services in charge of commercial sales.

Astrium Services hopes to maintain its dominant share of the medium-resolution market, and to use Pleiades to confront DigitalGlobe/GeoEye at the high-resolution end.

The French government has estimated that the two Pleiades satellites together cost some 650 million euros. The satellites take raw images with 70-centimeter resolution at nadir. These images can be resampled to produce 50-centimeter pictures.

Their higher resolution comes at a price, however: Pleiades’ swath width is just 20 kilometers.

Pleiades 1A was launched in December 2011 and entered service in March. The identical Pleiades 1B is scheduled for launch in December, with entry into operations scheduled for next March.

Charlotte Gabriel-Robez, head of Pleaides sales at Astrium Services, said the company is offering Pleiades archived imagery for 10 euros per square kilometer, 17 euros for “priority” images and 56 euros per square kilometer for “urgent” orders.

Gabriel-Robez said one of the Pleaides requirements insisted on by the French Defense Ministry was that it retain a ground resolution of better than 1 meter even if it swivels off-nadir by as much as 30 degrees in any direction.

Alain Gleyzes, Pleiades project manager at CNES, said during the briefing that Pleiades imagery degrades to a resolution of between 2.2 and 2.5 meters if the image is captured at the maximum 45 degrees off nadir.

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