Commercial Earth observation was all but invented in France, yet companies here that pioneered the high-resolution optical imagery market a decade ago have been edged out in recent years by tough competition from the U.S.

That could change, however, with the planned launch of France's first Pleiades high-resolution Earth-observation satellite this month, one of two next-generation optical-imaging spacecraft designed to serve military and civil users while reserving capacity for commercial customers.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the €760 million ($1 billion) Pleiades program started in October 2003 with a €314 million fixed-price contract awarded to EADS-Astrium by the French space agency CNES, with Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy providing the principal optical instrument.

Financed almost entirely by the French government, both satellites were designed to launch atop Europeanized Soyuz rockets—the first in mid-2008, followed by the second in 2009. But the debut of the rocket from Europe's Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport was postponed repeatedly, forcing lengthy delays in the Pleiades launch and depriving Astrium of anticipated revenue.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Defense Department in 2010 awarded a 10-year, $7.3 billion contract to two Astrium competitors in the U.S.—Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye and Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe—dramatically altering the landscape for commercial Earth-observation services in the global market.

Such pre-purchasing mechanisms do not exist in Europe—France has declined to reserve capacity on Astrium's SPOT 6 and 7 medium-resolution wide-swath optical imaging satellites, for example. But the addition of Pleiades to Astrium's geospatial intelligence services portfolio could give the company access to other markets, including the U.S., where the Pentagon last year selected Astrium as one of its radar imagery suppliers.

Astrium Geo-Information Services, a commercial company owned by Astrium and a subsidiary of Astrium Services, which commercializes Earth-observation imagery worldwide, already holds agreements with three companies seeking direct tasking rights to commercial Pleiades data. These include Japan's Pasco Corp., East-Dawn of China and Canada's MDA Corp., all of which have signed up for volume purchases of Pleiades imagery with the ability to directly send commands to the satellites.

Designed as a follow-on to France's SPOT satellites, with the capability to acquire the same wide-swath panchromatic and multispectral imagery, Pleiades will feature cutting-edge technological advances such as: 70-cm (27.5-in.) ground resolution that can be resampled to produce 50-cm resolution across a 20-km (12-mi.) swath; a high degree of agility that allows acquisition of several images successively along track or off-track for mosaic ground scenes; onboard storage capacity of 600 GB; and a downlink data rate to 450 mbps.

Both satellites are to be launched to a polar orbit at 694 km in altitude with 180 deg. between them in order to maximize the revisit time for any given area of the Earth's surface. The second satellite is scheduled for launch in spring 2013.

The French Ministry of Defense, through annual contributions to CNES, is paying for 90% of the Pleiades mission. The remaining 10% is covered by four nations that agreed to contribute minority stakes in Pleiades in return for programming rights equivalent to their participation: Belgium, 4%; Spain, 3%; Sweden 3% and Austria 0.4%.

Because the French defense ministry financed Pleiades through CNES, it has rights to 50 images per day from the two-satellite system. Pleiades managers estimate the two satellites together will produce 900 images per day.

Of the 850 remaining images, 40% are reserved for the French government for civil research programs and mapping. The other 60% are set aside for Astrium Geo-Information Services for global commercial sales.

The government has vowed it will not add value to the 40% of the 850 images reserved for government users in a way that would compete with Astrium's ability to market images.

Pleiades was set to launch Dec. 16 from French Guiana, along with four Elisa radar eavesdropping satellites developed for the French procurement agency DGA and a Chilean Earth-observation satellite. All six spacecraft are built by Astrium.

Although Pleiades could be the last government-funded civil satellite, France continues to advance the field of optical imaging systems. CNES is working with defense ministry money on a next-generation optical system tentatively named CXI, the roman-numeral equivalent of 191 that corresponds to an annual defense funding line included in the CNES budget request.

In addition, France is forging ahead with the optical component of Europe's next-generation imaging intelligence-satellite network. Last year Astrium landed a €795 million contract to build two very-high-resolution imaging intelligence satellites for the optical component, known as CSO. The spacecraft will replace France's Helios 2 satellites, which were launched in December of 2004 and 2009, respectively.