WorldView-4’s long road to launch 
about to pay off for DigitalGlobe

worldview-qf

Employees at Lockheed Martin completing final preparations of the WorldView-4 imaging satellite before shipping it to Vandenberg Air Force Base for a mid-September launch. Credit: Lockheed Martin

DigitalGlobe’s Earth observation and earnings capacity could expand dramatically with the planned Sept. 15 launch of its WorldView-4 high-resolution optical imaging satellite.

Like WorldView-3 launched in 2014, WorldView-4 is designed to capture panchromatic imagery with a resolution of 31 centimeters and multispectral imagery of 1.24 meters per pixel. WorldView-4, which weighs 2,500 kilograms and stands 5.5 meters tall, is “a big telescope with a little satellite wrapped around it,” said Walter Scott, founder, chief technical officer and executive vice president of Westminster, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.

The satellite was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, California, and is awaiting launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base down state on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Although the new satellite has the same Earth observing capacity as its predecessor, WorldView-4 will enable DigitalGlobe to more than double its daily collection of the high resolution imagery requested by its customers because having both WorldView-3 and WorldView-4 in orbit means each one will spend less time traveling from one target of interest to another, Scott said.

DigitalGlobe has obtained six pre-launch contracts and letters of intent from international defense and intelligence customers for WorldView-4 imagery, bringing the total contracted revenues for WorldView-3 and WorldView-4 to $415 million as of Aug. 1.

Scott attributes strong customer interest in WorldView-4 to growing demand for high-resolution imagery and to the guaranteed access DigitalGlobe can offer customers. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has priority access to WorldView-3 imagery, which means it can preempt imagery requests by other customers. That is not the case with WorldView-4. DigitalGlobe is marketing priority access to the new satellite, which gives customers confidence they will have access to imagery whenever they need it, Scott said.

“This will be the first time a lot of countries will have the ability to task a 30-centimeter resolution satellite,” said Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics, a research and consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Historically, they’ve bought 50 centimeter imagery from the older generation of satellites, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2. Customers will pay a premium to obtain 30-centimeter imagery without being subject to U.S. government preemption.”

In addition to selling customers the right to select imagery targets and download data, DigitalGlobe will profit from the 18 terabytes of daily imagery WorldView-4 sends to the company’s archive. “Once it is downloaded to DigitalGlobe’s imagery library, DigitalGlobe can resell it through geospatial data products, analytics and services,” Quilty said.

WorldView-4 has taken an unusually long time to get to the launch pad. Lockheed Martin began building the satellite, originally named GeoEye-2 for GeoEye of Herndon, Virginia, in 2010. After DigitalGlobe and GeoEye merged in 2013, DigitalGlobe proceeded with its planned launch of WorldView-3 and opted to store GeoEye-2. DigitalGlobe renamed the GeoEye-2 satellite WorldView-4 in 2014 when the company announced its 2016 launch.

WorldView-3 and WorldView-4 satellites offer similar resolution, geolocation accuracy, collection capacity and revisit rate. However, WorldView-4 is designed to move from one target of interest to another more quickly than WorldView-3 and it can store more data onboard. WorldView-3 has two unique features. It gathers data in four near-infrared and eight shortwave infrared bands. WorldView-3 also includes a sensor to observe clouds, aerosols, water vapor, ice and snow.

WorldView-4 builder Lockheed Martin is eager for the satellite’s launch to demonstrate its prowess in Earth imaging. Increasingly, international customers are contacting Lockheed Martin to discuss Earth imaging satellites and WorldView-4 provides a vivid example of the firm’s expertise, said Carl Marchetto, Lockheed Martin Commercial Space vice president and general manager.

“Countries want their own satellite now that the cost is coming down,” Marchetto said. “Many times they start talking with us about communications satellites and later the discussion moves to imaging satellites.”

WorldView-4 is designed to capture panchromatic imagery with a resolution of 31 centimeters and multispectral imagery of 1.24 meters per pixel. The resulting imagery will be on par with this recent WorldView-3 shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Credit: DigitalGlobe

WorldView-4 is designed to capture panchromatic imagery with a resolution of 31 centimeters and multispectral imagery of 1.24 meters per pixel. The resulting imagery will be on par with this recent WorldView-3 shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Credit: DigitalGlobe

Scott declined to discuss the cost of WorldView-4, but said it is similar to that of WorldView-3, which DigitalGlobe said cost $600 million including launch but excluding the cost of money used to finance the spacecraft’s construction.

Lockheed Martin is offering two less expensive Earth imaging satellites for customers who want high resolution and multispectral imagery or multiple small satellites to provide more frequent observations of specific areas. Lockhed Martin also is establishing teams to collect, analyze and process imagery for customers.

With the LM 300 bus, customers can obtain images with a resolution of 50 centimeters. With the LM 50, customers can buy satellites that are roughly the size of a miniature refrigerator to capture 80-centimeter resolution images. “We are actively pursuing customers for both the LM 300 and LM 50, and believe there is a healthy market for these satellites,” said Frank Koester, Lockheed Martin Commercial Remote Sensing director. “There is particular interest by nations that want an indigenous resource to collect imagery and information.”

Lockheed Martin built its first Earth observing satellite in the 1950s, the Corona reconnaissance satellite equipped with a panoramic film camera for the U.S. Air Force. More recently, Lockheed Martin built DigitalGlobe’s Ikonos commercial imaging satellite launched in 1999 and retired in 2015.