Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Inside GeoEye's $500 Million Imaging Satellite

GeoEye-1, the highest resolution imaging satellite in orbit, has begun releasing color images of such exceptional spatial resolution that some cannot be viewed without explicit government approval.

GeoEye's $500 million satellite launched into orbit Sept. 6 on a Boeing Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. After a 45-day testing and calibration period, images will begin downloading to GeoEye customers.

The GeoEye-1 is capable of capturing images as small as 16 inches in size from 432 miles above Earth -- close enough to spot a crusty baguette or a 12-pound bluefish -- but not quite near enough to identify a human face, the company says.

Applications for half-meter resolution satellite imagery run the gamut from national defense and security purposes to environmental monitoring, transportation, mining and drilling, agriculture, mapping and geo-based services. GeoEye-1 is part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) NextView program. NextView is designed to ensure that the NGA has access to commercial imagery in support of its mission to provide timely, relevant, and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of national security.

The satellite simultaneously collects 0.41-meter (16-inch) ground resolution black-and-white imagery in panchromatic mode and 1.65-meter color mode (multispectral). Security restrictions prohibit the release to commercial clients of imagery processed any closer than half-meter ground resolution.

In addition to government agencies, GeoEye counts Google (NSDQ: GOOG) among its customers. The serach giant will buy high-resolution images for use on Google Maps.

Orbiting at a speed of 17,000 mph, the two-ton satellite can pan up to 135,000 square miles per day in multispectral mode -- an area about the size of New Mexico. The craft carries a 1-Terabit recorder, and will downlink data at 740 mb/sec or 150 mb/sec to four ground stations in Virginia, Alaska, Norway, and Antarctica. A fifth location, near Denver, Colo., has been readied to act as a backup.

Insured for $320 million, the GeoEye-1 has a 7-plus year estimated life and enough fuel to last 15 years.

ITT's Space Systems Division built the on-board digital camera and delivered it to General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, the satellite's primary contractor. ITT already is at work on a next-generation camera for GeoEye-2, capable of discerning objects as small as a meatball sub (0.25-meter or 9.75 inches) in size. That satellite may be ready in 2011.

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