When the head of the European space agency Esa, Josef Aschbacher, warns that Europe could be left behind in the industry, he is also expected to speak of Earth observation by camera. Until now, those who want high-resolution optical images of the Earth’s surface have mostly relied on US satellites. While the American company Planet Labs offers a resolution of 50 centimeters, Maxar has arrived at 30 centimeters.
The Airbus Group now wants to catch up with the constellation of Pleiades Neo optical satellites – also with an accuracy of 30 centimeters, but with a scan width of 14 instead of nine kilometers. “The system has European roots with a focus on France,” said Evert Dudok, vice president of Airbus. In addition, each satellite has a laser communication terminal from the Airbus Tesat subsidiary in Germany.
With this project, the group completes two Pléiades satellites, which deliver images with a resolution of up to 50 centimeters within the Franco-Italian Orfeo satellite program since 2011. Under the name of Pléiades Neo, the group currently places four satellites at an altitude of 620 kilometers. Two of the 922 kilos are already in orbit, and two identical will follow in the coming year. You can then deliver up to four images per day from any point on the planet, which are always taken between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to ensure consistent quality thanks to the sunlight. Each satellite travels half a million square kilometers every day. “In a year, a single satellite could measure the entire Earth with a resolution of 30 centimeters,” explains Dudok.
The American company Planet, which currently has around 150 active satellites in space, offers multiple images, even more often per day, but for the moment only with a lower resolution. Maxar offers several satellites that scan 60% of the Earth’s surface each month, but only one of them with the same resolution as Airbus. Maxar plans to launch six new satellites next year, all of which will also have a resolution of 30 centimeters.
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Photo of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome with a resolution of 30 centimeters, taken by a new Pleiades satellite in May of this year.
(Photo: Airbus / oh)
Airbus sees itself ahead in terms of speed. Thanks to laser terminals, images reach the customer at up to 1.8 gigabits / second. “Via Laserlink, the customer has the data available within 15 minutes, which is unique,” explains Dudok. In an emergency, the camera can still be piloted for up to a quarter of an hour before recording, which can ideally be done 30-40 minutes after customer request. The resolution can be further improved by post-processing using artificial intelligence, which Maxar already offers, and Airbus wants to follow suit.
Customers of the database need the images, for example, for infrastructure planning and environmental monitoring, but they also sometimes search for plastic waste in the oceans. Oil companies can use it to develop and monitor fields, and Airbus also works with military users. But it could also be of interest to individuals and small businesses, such as brokers, to receive up-to-date satellite imagery in a timely manner, says Dudok. “For example, a forest owner could see what damage a storm has caused if a tree has fallen.”
Airbus now operates the project independently and is investing nearly 700 million euros in it. The group expects around two to three billion euros in turnover over the life of the system, which will be ten years.
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Airbus Pleiades Néo-Terre observation satellite. The first two of a constellation of four took off into space in April and August 2021. Illustration: Airbus / ah
(Photo: Illustration: Airbus / oh)