The Latest Generation of Spy Satellite Will Revolutionize How We Watch Earth

And it's available for any company to buy.

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Aug 13 2014, 5:35pm

Worldview-3 under construction in January. Image: Ball Aerospace

A new satellite can tell what type of minerals are on the surface of the Earth, what species a tree is and its current health, and it can even spot the details on the windshield of a car. And it's available for any company to buy.

Weather pending, the WorldView-3 satellite will launch today at 11:29am PDT, the live stream of which you can watch here. A collaboration between DigitalGlobe, Exelis, Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, and United Launch Alliance, its creators are calling it the most powerful satellite available on the commercial market.

Once the satellite, about the size of a small RV , reaches space, it will orbit at 620km (385 miles), or roughly the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. From here, it will capture images at 31cm resolution—currently the highest outside of military or research spheres.

Dr. Kumar Navulur, director of next generation products at DigitalGlobe, explained in the press conference how this produces images that aren't just great to look at, but practical too.

"There are people who want to manage cities using geo-spatial data," he said. With data at this level of resolution, it's possible to "clearly see features like manholes, sidewalks" and anything else they may need to examine, he said. He also showed how it could save life—picking up a distress signal from a group of survivors, for example.

Screenshot from a WorldView-3 presentation

But, as Navulur explained, "it's not just about pretty pictures." Because of the satellite's infrared sensor, the WorldView-3 can essentially see through smoke, haze and fog.

Having this capability may be useful to emergency services. "Last year, the firefighters in Arizona, they didn't have enough information on the ground," he said. But as shown in the below picture, the WorldView-3 can pick out details beyond the billowing smoke, distinguish it from a precipitation cloud, and clearly identify the burning fire. 

To ensure that the data is compatible with that taken from other parts of the world, or at different points in time, the CAVIS instrument (which stands for Clouds, Aerosols, Water Vapor, Ice and Snow), will correct any inconsistencies in the data, standardizing the imagery "no matter where or when the data was captured," according to a mini-site touting the satellite.

Then, all of this data can quickly be sent wherever it is needed, with a claimed downlink speed of 1200mb/s, faster than most Earth-based wifi networks.

Information from the longest wavelengths on WorldView-3 will be able to penetrate much smoke and haze. Image: DigitalGlobe

As well as infrared, the satellite's multi-spectral imagery can be used to monitor agriculture projects, and map a different colour to each crop to easily distinguish between them. 

The below image shows a huge farming area in Mali, with red for cotton, yellow for maize, green for millet, and dark green for sorghum. The WorldView-3 can also identify moisture levels in those crops, being able to tell if they are healthy or not.

Automated crop pattern mapping in Mali. Image: DigitalGlobe

Other applications include those looking for oil and gas to be able to scout out new sites, and mining companies that may want to explore and monitor potential projects, use of which could cut costs, according to the WorldView-3 mini-site.

This satellite is the latest in DigitalGlobe's constellation, and Rob Mitrevski, vice president of geospatial systems at Exelis, explained the history of the WorldView series. The WorldView-1, was launched in 2007, and its successor was shot into orbit two years later. One presentation slide hinted that the WorldView-4 could be coming about in 2016.

The increased level of detail in the images may have privacy advocates worried, however. Indeed, one of the companies that will use the WorldView-3 is Google, which wants to map the world with as much detail as possible. DigitalGlobe's past customers also include Microsoft and US federal agencies.

But if used properly, the WorldView-3 could introduce a whole host of benefits, both for companies and government services.