Tim Furniss/LONDON

Orbital Sciences' (OSC) Orbimage division has acquired the worldwide sales and distribution rights for radar imagery to be returned by Canada's 1,650kg (3,600lb) Radarsat 2 satellite.

The satellite, under construction by OSC's recently acquired MacDonald Dettwiler, will be launched in 2001 and is expected to be operated until 2008. Orbimage has made a commitment to the Canadian Space Agency to purchase at least $140 million-worth of images.

This addition to Orbimage's source of satellite images to complement its proprietary operational and planned satellites is helping to boost the division's unique, low-cost, earth imagery business worldwide.

Further data licensing agreements for other satellites are expected. A fleet of dedicated Orbimage satellites is being developed to supply images to users of specific target areas on land, at sea and in the atmosphere - some via international ground stations, but mostly through Internet-based sales channels. Image products are distributed via the Internet through an OrbNet digital archive, allowing customers to browse through up-to-date images and to buy on-line.

Two satellites are operational and two are planned for launch. The four-satellite system will improve the timely delivery and quality of information, "breaking new ground in space-based imagery", says Orbimage.

The key advantage of this commercial service is in the varied images available in spectrum ranges not necessarily offered by other emerging commercial systems. Orbimage says it has firm pre-launch contracts for each of its target markets, amounting so far to $125 million. It is one of the few commercial companies now operating in, or planning to enter, the satellite remote sensing market (such as the Lockheed Martin-led Space Imaging business) which is not gearing its business specifically towards high resolution 1m-class "spy satellite" imagery.

Although the US Government national security agencies are expected to be major users of the high resolution images of later Orbimage satellites - and allied foreign governments without their own remote sensing-surveillance capabilities will be able to buy images - Orbimage is concentrating on other areas.

Images can play a major role in large scale commercial fishing, farming, natural resource exploration, urban planning and real estate development. Science and research customers, can also use them to monitor global warming, for natural disaster assessment and for other environmental monitoring tasks.


Orbimage operates two satellites, the OrbView 1 and OrbView 2 - formerly known as SeaWiFS, a part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, for "sea viewing wide field of view sensor". Two high resolution satellites, the OrbViews 3 and 4, are being developed. The OrbView 1 was launched in 1995 and is being used to study worldwide lightning and severe climatic conditions, to provide atmospheric temperature, pressure and humidity data and to keep a weather eye on the development of hurricanes and tornadoes.

The OrbView 2, launched in 1997, is the world's first privately owned satellite, providing multispectral images of the earth's oceans. It provides images for Orbimage's anchor customer - NASA - and to the commercial fishing, coastal monitoring and agriculture industries.

By detecting subtle colour changes in the daily multispectral imagery of oceans, it is possible to monitor phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants) and sedimentation levels in oceans. Fish-finding maps can be produced for locating surface-dwelling fish. The concentration of phyoplankton can be monitored because the colour in most of the oceans in the visible light region varies with the concentration of chlorophyll and other plant pigments present in the water. The more phyoplankton present, the greater the concentration of plant pigments and therefore the greener the water. The method also allows assessment of the health of vegetation.

The craft is equipped with eight imaging channels, six in the visible spectrum and two in the near infrared spectrum, with a spatial resolution of 1.1km. Daily coverage is provided from polar orbit with a swath width of 2,800km. The imagery is continuously downlinked in real time and can be acquired with a standard high resolution picture transmission ground station.

Customers can either directly downlink the data with their own ground station by purchasing a downlink licence, or they can buy individual images from the Orbimage online service. The third satellite in the Orbimage series will be launched later this year, offering 1m-resolution panchromatic and 4m-resolution multispectral digital imagery for construction planning, agriculture, treaty monitoring and environmental management.

The OrbView 4, to be launched in 2000, will add hyperspectral digital imagery. Hyperspectral imagery is useful for providing information on the composition and properties of the earth and on man-made objects, for mineral exploration, agriculture management, environmental monitoring and security.

Source: Flight International