Evolution of the Earth Observation Market

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

The changing Earth Observation (EO) market has been a topic of office conversation this week at Pixalytics. We’re currently in the final stage of developing our own product portal, and it was interesting to see that some of our thoughts were echoed by reports from last week’s World Satellite Business Week event in Paris.

Unsurprisingly, speakers at the event agreed that the EO sector has huge growth potential. This is something we regularly see highlighted in various emails and press releases. For example, in the last few weeks we’ve had:

At a few thousand dollars for access to each report, we’ve said before that one of the products we should develop is an annual report on the EO market!

As we’ve been working towards our portal, one of issues we’ve identified is how difficult some portals are to navigate, particularly if you are not an EO expert. This was also recognised at the Paris event, with an acknowledgement that EO companies need to understand what customers want and then provide a user friendly experience to deliver those needs.

As reported by Tereza Pultarova in Space News, there was also discussion on the need to move away from simply selling data, and instead provide answers to the practical questions about the planet that businesses and consumers have. It is only through this transformation that new sectors and markets for EO will open which will be the key for the aforementioned future growth. The Paris event also highlighted some of the key trends that will be the backbone of this transformation:

  • Providing as close as possible to near real time data.
  • Increased data analytics, particularly through machine learning and artificial intelligence platforms to analyse data and highlight anomalies and changes faster.
  • Bringing satellite data together with social media information to rapidly enable context to be added to images.
  • Vertical integration within the industry within satellite firms acquiring with data processing and analytics companies; for example, Digital Globe acquired The Radiant Group earlier this year.
  • Processing data onboard satellites, so users download the information they want, rather than reams of data.

There was a really interesting analogy with the navigation industry given by Wade Larson, president and CEO of Urthecast. He said “Navigation became kind of embedded infrastructure in a much larger industry called location-based services. We think that this is happening with geoanalytics.”

This is the direction of travel for the industry, and some players are moving faster than others. Last week Airbus confirmed their four satellite very high-resolution-imaging constellation, Pléiades Neo, is on schedule for launch in 2020. This will have 30 cm spatial resolution and will utilise the Space Data Highway, also known as the European Data Relay System (EDRS), to stream the images into an online platform. The ERDS uses lasers to transfer up to 40 terabytes a day at a speed of up to 1.8 Gbits per second, meaning users will have access to data in near real time.

This evolution of the EO market needs to be recognised by every company in the industry from the Airbus down to the small company’s trying to launch their own product portal. If you don’t move with the changing market, you won’t get any of the market.

Why the Current Internet Satellite Space Race Matters?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

The starting gun fired some time ago on the race to create a global satellite internet network. Last week OneWeb, backed by the Virgin Group and Qualcomm, stretched its legs with the announcement of a $500 million investment from companies including Airbus and Coke-Cola. The project intends to create a network of 648 microsatellites providing global high-speed internet and telephony services, to ensure everywhere on the planet has access. It’s planned these will be launched in batches, starting in 2017 with go live in 2019.

However, OneWeb isn’t the only runner in this race. Elon Musk’s Space X company, backed by Google, also has plans for a 4 000 strong internet satellite network; testing is due to begin in 2016 and current plans have it reaching full capacity around 2030.

These two developments could signal a change of pace in the satellite industry, as they will both be using mass produced satellites. Although neither project has realised the specifications for their microsatellites, some details are available. Both networks will be in Low Earth Orbits of around 1100 to 1200 km, weights will also be similar with OneWeb’s at 150 kg and Space X’s slightly more at around 200 kg. The microsatellite size is expected to be around half a square metre – although little has been announced about this to date; Airbus was recently awarded the build contract for OneWeb. Both constellations plan to use the microwave frequency Ku band, although Space X has also indicated interest in the Ka band.

Apart from mass production, the other element of these networks worth thinking about is the sheer quantity of satellites involved. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs recorded 239 satellites launched last year, and this was the greatest number ever launched in a single year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists last satellite database, from 31 January 2015, there are current 1 265 satellites in orbit around the Earth. Therefore, if both of these projects cross the finish line, they will more than quadruple the current number of satellites.

More objects in space increases the likelihood of potential collisions and impacts, and increases the potential space junk and debris in the atmosphere – although, OneWeb has already announced plans for deorbiting its satellites at end of life. This increase of objects in LEO does bring to mind the Kessler Syndrome hypothesized by Donald Kessler in 1978. He proposed a scenario where the density of objects in LEO is so great that the debris from a single collision between two objects would set off a cascade of subsequent collisions so great, that it would prevent any further spacecraft from passing through the LEO area; as explored in the 2013 film Gravity. This level of satellite concentration will need careful managing and monitoring.

In terms of Earth observation, the satellites will probably cause minimal impact. Due to their size, they will show up as rogue pixels on very high-resolution images, but wouldn’t register on the coarser resolution of systems such as Landsat. In terms of frequency bands, the Ku band isn’t generally used for Earth observation; although the altimeter, ALTIKA, onboard the joint French and Indian SARAL mission does operate at the Ka band and any use of that band by the Space X project will be worth watching. This isn’t the first time Earth observation has had to fight its corner for bandwidth, there is an ongoing battle with mobile data companies for use of these microwave frequencies that could also be used for wireless data transmission.

The internet satellite space race is an event that must be watched, it will change the satellite and telecommunication industries; and has the potential to change fundamentally what orbits the Earth.