New WorldView 3 satellite will provide new look at the globe

The satellite, due for launch on Wednesday, could mean better quality images on Google Earth and Bing Maps

DigitalGlobe's WorldView 3 satellite

DigitalGlobe's WorldView 3 satellite

DigitalGlobe's WorldView 3 satellite, scheduled to launch next week, promises to bring unprecedented resolution to commercial satellite imagery.

The satellite will be blasted into space on an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Wednesday morning in a launch that has extra significance given a recent U.S. government decision to relax rules regarding the resolution of images that can be sold to companies like Google and Microsoft.

At present, commercial satellite operators are prohibited from selling images with a resolution better than 50 centimeters to customers other than the U.S. government, but with the launch of WorldView 3 that's changing. From early 2015, the limit will be reduced to 30 centimeters, which is a fraction finer than the 31 centimeters that WorldView 3 can manage.

The change should mean better quality images on services like Google Earth and Bing Maps, and will also help DigitalGlobe's other customers.

"Our imagery is used by a lot of state and local governments for urban planning," said Kumar Navulur, director of next generation products at DigitalGlobe. He said the images are used to survey things like back yard swimming pools, but that's not all.

The satellites capture images in visible and infrared light and these latter ones can be used to monitor the environment.

For example, one of the sensors can see the presence of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants and trees. By monitoring over time, an early warning of disease can be picked up. Trees tend to lose their chlorophyll as they are stressed and Navulur said the satellite's sensor will detect that long before it's obvious through color changes visible to the eye.

WorldView 3 adds new sensors that capture eight additional infrared bands, some of them useful to energy companies in the exploration of oil and gas, and to geological research. The satellite should also allow analysts to map not just the presence of trees but the type of tree -- something that's useful when figuring out the benefits of forests on carbon output.

The sensors also allow the company to monitor the presence of water vapor, aerosols, clouds, ice and snow in the sky -- something that can be used to perform accurate color correction so images taken under different conditions have a more consistent look.

DigitalGlobe counts the U.S. government as its most important customer. That includes the U.S. military which, even though it has satellites of its own capable of even greater resolution, turns to DigitalGlobe for images that will be shared with allies or the public. (U.S. military satellite specifications are not public, but some suggest they are in the single centimeter range.)

The satellite imaging market was recently jolted by Google's purchase of Skybox Imaging, a startup operating a fleet of micro imaging satellites. They are capable of 90 centimeter resolution, three times less fine that the WorldView 3 pictures.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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