Chile has one. So do Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). By the end of April Vietnam could, too.
Over the next decade more than 280 Earth-observation-satellite systems are expected to be launched into orbit, with roughly 30% lofted for developing space programs in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East—regions where technology transfer is key to fostering fledgling industries, according to Paris-based Euroconsult.
Earth-observation satellites and the increasingly sharp imagery they produce are the fastest-growing segment of a commercial remote-sensing industry currently dominated by Western suppliers, a market that is projected to generate nearly $4 billion in annual revenue by 2021. But as emerging space economies gain technological know-how—much of it via satellite contracts with European and Asian manufacturers—established companies in the U.S. and Europe will navigate an increasingly dynamic competitive landscape.
Many of these new entrants are seeking Earth-observation satellites of their own to meet defense and civil needs—everything from military surveillance to crop monitoring and urban planning. Other countries simply buy imagery on the commercial market, which today is led by sub-meter-resolution heavyweights DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.,-Astrium Services and Telespazio of Rome. At least one has opted to finance an entire constellation in exchange for access to its data, as Beijing-based Twenty First Century Aerospace Technology Co. did in 2011 under an agreement with British small-satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), a subsidiary of Astrium.
But an increasing number are seeking technology and know-how to bolster burgeoning domestic space programs, including some with the potential to sell imagery and data on the commercial market.
For example, Turkey is investing heavily in developing its domestic space program, one that already boasts several telecommunications satellites and two Earth-observation spacecraft, with plans to produce more.
In August 2011 Ankara launched a Turkish microsat equipped with an optical payload on a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket from Yasny Launch Base in Russia, followed by the mostly Turkish-built Gokturk-2 launched in December 2012 atop a Chinese Long March 2D. The 400-kg (882-lb.) satellite incorporates a German solar-generation system and Korean-built optical instrument capable of 2.5-meter (8.2-ft.) panchromatic resolution with a 20-km (12-mi.+) swath.
In January, with Gokturk-2 operating nominally in orbit, Ankara said the government was prepared to enter negotiations with Turkish industry to begin work on the country's first synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging spacecraft, a development that could be enabled in part by a new satellite assembly, integration and test facility thatis building in Turkey. Capable of processing satellites weighing up to 5,000 kg, the plant's construction is one of the terms in a 2009 contract between Turkey's defense ministry and prime contractor Telespazio that by the end of this year will furnish Ankara with Gokturk-1, the highest-resolution optical-imaging spacecraft ever approved for export.
At about 1,000 kg, the-built satellite will offer 50-cm (20-in.) resolution at nadir in black and white, according to industry sources, a capability that bests France's new twin Pleiades Earth-observation spacecraft, which is designed to capture raw data with 70-cm resolution at nadir but can resample images to produce pictures of 50-cm-wide objects.
More than 15 years in the making, the agreement gives Turkish Aerospace Industries the opportunity to complete final integration of the spacecraft at the new test facility before it is launched early next year. Turkey also has the option to purchase a follow-on spacecraft that would undergo complete assembly, integration and test in Turkey, according to industry sources.
“Gokturk-1 is the most impressive example of a satellite with real capabilities that are not so far from the leading technologies of the top five nations in space,” says Philippe Campenon, deputy director for space and Earth observation at Euroconsult.
A similar contract with Astrium will supply two Earth-observation satellites to Kazakhstan, including the DZZ-HR 1-meter-resolution satellite slated to launch on a Vega rocket in mid-2014. The spacecraft is being built entirely by Astrium Satellites in France, based on the company's Theos platform, which Astrium used to develop Taiwan's Formosat-2 optical-imaging spacecraft. A separate, 200-kg satellite dubbed MRES is a collaboration between Astrium and SSTL. The 7-meter-resolution spacecraft is based on the SSTL-150 platform with heritage technologies developed for the 2.5-meter-resolution NigeriaSat-2 that launched in 2011.
The contract is part of a broader agreement under which Astrium will train Kazakh engineers, build a satellite integration center in Astana and provide access to optical and radar imagery from France's SPOT satellites and Germany's TerraSAR-X radar spacecraft.
Astrium is also helping Vietnam develop a domestic space capability with the first of four Earth-observation satellites Hanoi plans to build through the end of the decade. The contract with the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology covers development, build and launch of the 13-kg VNREDSat-1A, capable of 2.5-meter black-and-white and 10-meter multispectral resolution with a 17.5-km swath, plus ground control; an image-receiving station; and a training program for 15 Vietnamese engineers. Based on the AstroSat100 bus used for Chile's Sistema Satelital para la Observacion de la Tierra program and the Alsat-2 satellite built with Algeria, VNREDSat-1A is slated to launch in April as a secondary payload on Vega.
Despite such assistance, however, Campenon says most emerging space programs are a long way from developing indigenous sophisticated high-resolution imaging capabilities of their own.
“From a technological point of view, the step from medium- to high-resolution is huge,” Campenon says.
For example, Taiwan has worked for years with Astrium in developing its Formosat series of satellites, with the goal of creating a domestic industrial capacity and associated service industry. After a decade spent acquiring engineering expertise through international collaboration, the country's new 525-kg Formosat-5 will carry a Taiwan-built optical instrument capable of 2-meter resolution in black-and-white and 4 meters in multi-spectral over a 24-km swath. Formosat-5 is slated to launch in 2015, according to Taiwan National Space Organization officials, with a follow-on spacecraft planned for the same orbit, albeit in a different ground track to effect daily revisit time and global coverage.
Similarly, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute has spent almost two decades developing the Korean Multipurpose Satellite (Kompsat) series, starting with a U.S. satellite bus designed by TRW and using German optical instruments. The latest generation of the Earth-observation satellite, Kompsat-3, carries a camera built by Astrium Satellites that is capable of 70-cm panchromatic and 2.8-meter multispectral resolution. A follow-on Kompsat-3A slated to launch in September on a Dnepr rocket was also built with Astrium assistance, featuring 55-cm panchromatic and 2.2-meter multispectral resolution and an infrared camera.
“It's very high-tech, even though they are one step behind the European and American systems in terms of technology,” Campenon says.
For now, countries like South Korea and Taiwan pose little threat to established commercial remote-sensing providers, though this is already starting to change. While both countries had negotiated agreements with Astrium Services to market imagery produced by Kompsat and Formosat satellites, South Korea recently switched to small-satellite manufacturer and local data distributor Satrec Initiative, and Campenon says Taiwan may do something similar.
Satrec is also working with the UAE to develop the DubaiSat series of spacecraft. Abu Dhabi is one of several Middle Eastern capitals investing in space capabilities as a response to growing instability in the region, a perceived threat from Iran and desire to foster a domestic aerospace and defense industry (see page 31). In 2009 UAE launched the 200-kg DubaiSat-1 for the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology, and UAE engineers have since taken the lead in designing a follow-on spacecraft with Satrec, dubbed DubaiSat-2, which will offer 1-meter panchromatic resolution and 4-meter multispectral with a 12.2-km swath.
The UAE air force is also shopping for a high-resolution imaging satellite among U.S. and European suppliers that according to industry sources, include, a team comprising Astrium and Thales, and DigitalGlobe, which could potentially furnish the spare ultra-high-resolution GeoEye-2 satellite it acquired in the January takeover of chief U.S. rival GeoEye.
DigitalGlobe spokesman Robert Keosheyan said Feb. 7 the company received an unsolicited inbound expression of interest from the UAE and is in the process of considering whether to engage in discussions.
Other countries in line to loft high-resolution spacecraft include Japan, where Tokyo-based NEC expects to orbit its 300-kg Advanced Satellite with New System for Observation (Asnaro) spacecraft atop a Dnepr rocket this year. Based on the modular NX-300L bus, Asnaro is advertised as offering less than 50-cm panchromatic and 2-meter multispectral resolution at 500-km altitude across a 10-km swath. NEC says a SAR observation satellite and wide-coverage optical observation spacecraft are also planned, forming an Asnaro constellation offering a range of Earth observation services.