VANDENBERG AFB, California – DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3, the most sophisticated super-spectral, high-resolution commercial satellite yet developed, has been placed in a polar low Earth orbit following its successful launch here Aug. 13.

Built by Ball Aerospace and launched at 11:29 a.m. Pacific time on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401, the spacecraft will be the first in the U.S. to provide detailed imagery to commercial users at resolution levels previously reserved for the U.S. military and government intelligence community. The sensor package on WorldView-3 will be able to image objects with a ground sample distance of 31 cm (12 in.). "So we can tell you if it’s a truck, SUV or a regular car," says Kumar Navulur, director of next-generation products at DigitalGlobe. "If there’s a high contrast we can identify features of fine scale," he adds, giving examples of markings in a parking lot or "a tomato plant in a backyard in Asia."

The launch, which took place from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 3E, comes just two months after the U.S. Department of Commerce authorized the Colorado-based satellite surveillance company to collect and sell imagery at the best available resolutions, overturning earlier rulings that limited sales of images with resolutions below 50 cm to all but the U.S. government. DigitialGlobe will be able to sell imagery at up to 25 cm panchromatic and 1 meter multispectral, starting in early 2015 – or six months after launch.

Describing the specifics of the license agreement, Navulur says "as of June 16 we are now able to sell 40-cm resolution images to our customers. GeoEye [one of five existing DigitalGlobe satellites in orbit] collects at around 42 cm, so we can provide 40-cm imagery today. Six months after WorldView-3 becomes operational we will be able to provide 30-cm data, but in terms of the license we have today we can provide 25-cm panchromatic data, 1 [meter] of visible and IR [infrared], and 7 [meters] of short wave IR." The effect will be like the difference between high-definition and conventional television pictures, he adds.

Launched toward an ultimate operating altitude of 383 mi. (617 km), the 6,200-lb. spacecraft is 18.7 ft. tall and 8 ft. across when stowed atop the Atlas V launch vehicle, but will be 23-ft. across with its solar panels deployed. Configured with imaging sensor suites from Exelis and Ball covering 29 different sensing bands, WorldView-3 will provide 31-cm panchromatic (black and white) resolution, 1.24-meter multispectral resolution and 3.7-meter shortwave IR resolution. One of the key systems in the suite is the Ball-developed Cavis (Clouds, Aerosols, Vapors, Ice, and Snow) imager, which will provide the ability to effectively see through haze, smoke, dust and other obscurants with a resolution of 30 meters.

The satellite will have an average revisit time of just less than a day, which will allow it to take up to 680,000 sq. km of imagery every day. DigitalGlobe says the relaxation of the resolution rules means that through the services provided by existing companies such as Microsoft and Google, "people will have access to even high-quality images on some services such as Bing Maps and Google Earth." Together with other DigitalGlobe satellites, which include QuickBird, WorldView-1, WorldView-2, Ikonos and GeoEye-1, the addition of the new satellite enables the company to cover "4 million square kilometers a day. That’s almost half of the area of the entire continental U.S. in one day," Navulur says.