Defense Watch: Commercial Imagery Promotes International Cooperation

by | Apr 9, 2011

By Dawn Eilenberger, director of the Office of International Affairs and Policy, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (, Bethesda, Md.

Rapid access to unclassified imagery to support disaster response allows the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide planners and coordinators with comprehensive situational awareness when they need it the most.

Commercial imagery plays a key role in these events because it allows governments to freely share data that might otherwise have been classified.

In 2010 alone, NGA responded to several disasters, including the Haiti earthquake and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Diverse Imagery Sources
The NextView contract gives NGA constellation-like access to DigitalGlobe's and GeoEye's high-resolution electro-optical commercial satellites. Combined with NGA's access to Spot Image electro-optical satellite imagery and data from Italy, Germany and Canada's radar satellites, NGA now has access to almost a dozen commercial imagery satellites.
During the Deepwater Horizon response, commercial data also were made available to the U.S. government from RapidEye, a constellation from Germany that includes five multispectral satellites with a daily revisit rate. Altogether, such commercial imagery availability is unprecedented, especially when compared with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when NGA could access less than half as many unclassified commercial imagery systems.

The demand for commercial imagery to support disaster response and other critical mission areas will continue to grow. Today, commercial satellites are producing massive archives of data that have yet to be fully exploited for mapping and monitoring environmental change. This access provides incredible potential for commercially available archive imagery to support, for example, the U.S. African Command's capacity-building efforts for an area approximately the same geographic size as the United States, China, India and all of Europe combined.

GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have around 1.5 billion square kilometers of the highest-resolution commercial imagery available in their archives, and Spot Image recently announced more than 100 billion square kilometers of imagery holdings between 2.5 meters and 10 meters, spanning all the way back to the 1986 launch of SPOT-1.

Upcoming Launches
The future development of commercial imagery sources also looks promising. NGA recently awarded contracts for EnhancedView to DigitalGlobe and GeoEye with a period of performance for 10 years if all of the contract options are exercised. Since this award, both U.S. companies have announced plans to build next-generation, high-resolution commercial satellites.
In Europe, France is about to launch the first of two Pleiades high-resolution electro-optical satellites, and SPOT 6 and 7 are also in development. Germany is flying two identical synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites a few hundred meters apart in space and eventually will produce the only global digital elevation model ever developed from a single commercial sensor, while also planning its next-generation SAR system.

South Korea is expected to launch its Kompsat-5 SAR satellite by the end of the year, followed shortly by the launch of its Kompsat-3 electro-optical system. Kompsat-3 will launch on a Japanese rocket, further demonstrating a new level of cooperation with commercial systems that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Japan also is planning to launch in 2012-2013 a small satellite capable of collecting 0.5-meter unclassified imagery”an endeavor supported by Japan's new space policy that specifically promotes space commercialization.

India currently has systems on orbit and in development, with resolutions ranging from 1 kilometer to less than a meter, that are supported by more than a dozen ground stations around the world. Canada and Italy are both discussing follow-on SAR constellations, and countries like Spain and Turkey are becoming full members of the remote sensing community as they develop their own SAR and electro-optical systems.

The new U.S. National Space Policy, released in June 2010, encourages the United States to enhance international cooperation and collaboration in space. Using and sharing commercial imagery in response to common international concerns provide one of the most effective ways to implement this objective.

Now, more than ever, NGA is able to know the Earth and monitor rapid changes on its surface during a crisis as well as changes occurring over time. Taking advantage of new data sources will support NGA's geospatial intelligence mission with foundation data for change detection, geospatial readiness and production, as well as help develop new geospatial tradecraft.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.


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