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The Small Satellite Revolution: More Earth Observations at a Lower Cost

(17 September 2013 by Matt Ball) While there has been much discussion about an explosion of earth observation satellites over the next few decades, much of that has centered around developing countries starting their own programs or existing countries adding to their capacity. New developments with smaller and cheaper satellites are now promising a surge of commercial space-based imagery platforms at a global scale.

A number of factors are at play with this rapid expansion, including: cheaper and more accessible satellite technology, more satellite launch choices thanks to the commercialization of space, a greater awareness of the insight these imaging platforms afford in a rapidly changing world, and better web-based visualization and mapping systems that are ready to ingest and analyze near real-time imagery.

This trend toward smaller satellites has been happening over time, with much of the innovation taking place in developing countries where affordability has been the key driver. However, there are now several venture-capital backed U.S.-based companies that are set to make inroads with recently announced plans for multi-satellite constellations with global coverage. These for-profit satellite constellations are fueled by the interest in more and more data for greater insight on global change, led by industries that are gaining market advantages through ongoing monitoring. The timing is ripe now as it matches the changes in computing capacity afforded by cloud computing, and new analytical tools that can make sense of these “Big Data” feeds.

Pioneering Low-cost Options

The trend toward smaller satellites has been led by the efforts of Surrey Satellite Technology. This 30-year-old company, has built a reputation of both small satellite construction and satellite constellation deployment, having success as the makers of the commercial RapidEye satellite imagery constellation, as well as their own spin-off company Disaster Monitoring Constellation International Imaging (DMCii). The company has now ramped up their presence in the United States, with the launch of SST-US.

“As we move forward, the role of the small spacecraft is becoming more important,” said Dr. John Paffett, CEO of SST-US. “That’s largely because every year the technology improves, with better computers and storage and payloads. The technological evolution improves, price points continue to come down, and now with a small 150 to 300 kg spacecraft for $10 to $20 million you can do what you were doing with a 1,000 kg spacecraft five to 10 years ago for $500 million.”

DMCii was developed by SST as a constellation of satellites that fill a unique niche with 32-meter resolution that is compatible with Landsat, and a three-band imager to assess vegetation health. The constellation’s advantage is that it has a very large swath width to capture an image tile that is 600 km by 600 km, and can capture the same image for the same part of the Earth every day.

The first-generation of four satellites were launched in 2002, another satellite was launched in 2005 with greater imaging capacity, and a sixth was launched in 2012. A second generation of satellites were launched in 2009 as NigeriaSat, with greater pixel density and 2.5 meter resolution panchromatic and 5 meter multispectral imagery. This imagery is owned by the Nigerian government and licensed to and sold by DMCii to enhance their offerings.

RapidEye offers five-meter imagery, with five spectral bands, from its constellation of five identical earth observation satellites that were launched in 2008. After issues with its financial backers related to the economic downturn, the Blackbridge Group, Canada, acquired the assets of RapidEye AG, and are marketing their solutions primarily toward natural resources, targeting agriculture, forestry, and the environment as well as energy, security and infrastructure.

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  • About Matt Ball=
  • Matt has been promoting the application of sensors, systems, models and simulation for the better stewardship of our planet for the past fifteen years. The first ten years of that span were as editor of GeoWorld magazine and show manager of the GeoTec Event. The past five have been as a founder of Vector1 Media, with publications Sensors & Systems, Informed Infrastructure and Asia Surveying & Mapping. E-mail: mattball at
  • Source SensorsandSystems