The discussion about space commercialization usually begins with the upstream sector – development and design of spacecraft and their launch into orbit. This part of the work is before the public eye, it is understandable and looks effective, and it is clear why most of the recent startups of the New Space movement are going to be involved precisely in the design of launch vehicles of different classes, production of satellites and cubesats and their launch into orbit. It is simple, straightforward, and effective.
The terms “upstream” and “downstream” came to the space industry from the oil industry and refer to the production sectors. “Upstream” is the exploration of new fields and deposits, the design of derricks and their installation. “Downstream” refers to all the factories that are engaged in oil processing and refining, a network for products distribution to retail customers. With regard to the space industry, “upstream” is design and development of rockets and spacecraft, as well as their operational maintenance in orbit. “Downstream” refers to processing data received from space vehicles, data verification, and selling the data to the end users.
Unfortunately, as usual, most financial resources are located not in the sectors with bright ideas and a lot of participants willing to earn money by designing a new rocket. While the total volume of the global space market has already come close to $400 billion a year, and according to some estimates has even exceeded this value, the market volume for commercial launches of space vehicles makes for only 2–4 per cent of this amount. At the same time, the great part of the market share belongs specifically to the downstream sector – namely, sales of TV broadcasting services, broadband satellite Internet, satellite communications and, of course, Earth Remote Sensing (ERS) data.
The market for Earth remote sensing data is evolving at a tremendous rate. More and more spacecraft launched into orbit are designed to monitor and survey the surface of our planet. In 2014–2015, the experts even predicted that the global satellite survey coverage of the entire planet would reach a daily rate by 2020. The forecast almost came true, as after the launch in July 2020, Planet Labs announced the possibility of monitoring the entire planet on daily basis.
Simultaneously with the increase in the frequency of images, the world ERS market is currently aiming at improving the quality and resolution of images. The images of the Earth’s surface with a resolution of 3–5 meters per pixel, which were very popular five to ten years ago, are becoming a thing of the past. Modern spacecraft are capable of providing commercial images with a resolution of 30–50 centimeters per pixel, which is close enough to the theoretical quality limit. According to NASA studies conducted in the 1970s, the theoretically calculated quality limit for images of the Earth’s surface is about 10 centimeters per pixel.
A more precise resolution is not very realistic due to the presence of a dense atmosphere layer near the Earth’s surface, which inevitably distorts the data received by the satellite. Perhaps, in the future, there will be attempts to solve this problem by using burst-mode image shots with subsequent data processing with neural networks, but so far surveying with such a precision is impossible. For commercial spacecraft, the best image quality is 30 centimeters per pixel. Images with a resolution of 30 centimeters to 1 meter per pixel are considered to be of the ultra-high resolution quality.
There are two companies recognized as the leading companies in this field – Maxar and Airbus. Nowadays, they provide more than two-thirds of the total market value of the Earth’s remote sensing space data. The main competitors of these two giants are Spacewill and the Planet Labs (which originally worked with lower resolution parameters, but then launched the SkySat ultra-high resolution constellation). This segment also includes the following companies: 21AT (China), SIIS (Korea), ISI (Israel), CG Satellite (China).
In Russia, at the moment, there is no commercial company having its own operating spacecraft constellation capable of presenting ultra-high resolution imaging of the Earth’s surface. Talking about state space vehicles, these conditions are met by the ‘Resurs-P’ satellite imagining system. It can get images with a resolution of 1 meter per pixel using a panchromatic camera
For a long time, images with high (from 1 to 2.5 meters) and medium (from 2.5 to 20 meters) resolution have been considered as a standard. However, nowadays there are a lot of images with such resolution in the market and several companies, including Airbus and Planet Labs, have announced their gradual withdrawal from this segment. Although the leaders in this sector still remain Airbus company with the Spot constellation and a huge data archive, and Planet Labs with the Dove constellation of the previous generation.
Axelspace (Japan) and Orbita Aerospace (China) are among the new participants in the international market. Orbita Aerospace owns 12 satellites (with a planned constellation size of 34 satellites). Among the spacecraft, there are satellites with hyperspectral cameras, and there are plans to introduce spacecraft for radar imaging and satellites equipped with infrared cameras.
Axelspace is the satellite operator for the AxelGlob constellation. The company has been creating its own constellation since 2015 and initially planned to include more than fifty spacecraft in it. Based on the needs of customers, the first GRUS-1A satellite was launched in 2018. In March 2021, four more GRUS spacecraft were launched with the help of the Russian ‘Soyuz-2’ rocket.
In the future, an annual increase of the constellation size is expected. Regarding the specification, AxelGlobe is similar to RapidEye, but provides improved spatial resolution (2.5 m in panchrome mode, 5 m in multispectrum mode, with 55-km swath). The constellation of five vehicles will provide daily coverage in some parts of the world by the end of 2020.
In Russian segment, the main type of space vehicles providing such data is the Canopus. A series of Russian satellites for remote sensing of the Earth is designed by the VNIIEM Corporation JC in cooperation with the British company the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. The satellites operate for Roskosmos, the Ministry of Emergencies, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Roshydromet, the Russian Academy of Sciences; they are used for mapping, monitoring emergency situations, including fires, and operating surveillance of specified areas.
WHITE ON WHITE
Another potentially promising segment can be ERS satellites operating beyond the visible range. These are radar and infrared-range surface surveys. The fact is that the images in the visible range, which look very similar to our eyes, are not always suitable for work. For example, when it is necessary to determine the state of the surface covered with layers of ice or snow of the same white color, or when monochrome green fields are being surveyed.
The particular feature of radar data is that they can be obtained regardless of weather conditions. For example, in the presence of dense clouds, imaging with conventional cameras is practically useless. In this case, radar surveying can provide more sensible information.
For many years, the E-Geos company remained in the leading position for this segment, and it has recently launched a new generation of Cosmo-SkyMed satellites, which are absolutely identical to vehicles of the first generation. As the previous constellation is still operating, customers can receive information from eight satellites at once. In 2019, Maxar company launched a constellation of three radar satellites of the Radarsat Constellation type into orbit.
The issue of radar surveying is of great importance for Russia. In the upcoming years, it is planned to launch several spacecraft capable of operating over the Arctic area – in the zone of monochromatic landscapes and high clouds.
COUNTING ELEPHANTS. TRENDS IN THE GLOBAL ERS DATA MARKET
When several companies reached a resolution of about 30 centimeters per pixel, it became evident that this was the standard that all commercial market players would reach in the upcoming years. The customers are increasingly willing to get detailed surface images.
The main factors for developing a competitive offer are the following:
- data completeness and area coverage
- price of images
- image delivery speed and possibility to obtain the most relevant information
- possibility to work with small orders, flexibility and convenience of the data obtaining process
Commercial organizations are more likely to meet these requirements. Therefore, state governments often form the ERS market by purchasing the required information from private companies. This form of cooperation is used by the US Department of Defense. The direct benefit is clear in this case: there is no need to launch a new ERS satellite or to re-target an existing one to the relevant military area. And the highest efficiency can be achieved in this case.
The subsequent processing of the received satellite data is becoming an important and expensive service. This task requires the operation of specially-trained ultra-precise neural networks capable of data labeling and automatic searching for and marking information that is important and significant for the user. A system of this type is capable of processing satellite data obtained from some reserved area in the automatic mode and determine, for example, all objects that can be identified as elephants. After that, an additional check is carried out, which would take several dozens or hundreds of hours in case of human work. In the nearest future, these complex and sophisticated services will become the basis for companies selling ERS data.
An increasing part of this work will be subordinated to the downstream sector, where the main profit is generated. Nowadays, the most important thing is not how many satellites and of what type you have on orbit, but rather how successfully and profitably can you sell the information received from these satellites.
Author – Mikhail Kotov
©New Defence Order. Strategy №4 (69) 2021