The newest satellite circling Earth can spot everything from tomato plants to parking spaces

WorldView-3

The most powerful commercial satellite ever made left Lompoc, Calif., today aboard a rocket and is now spending its first evening circling the Earth.

Known as WorldView-3, the satellite joins Earth-imaging company DigitalGlobe’s five existing satellites, which have offered increasingly detailed views of Earth. If you have spent any time looking at Google Earth, you have probably seen an image taken by a DigitalGlobe satellite.

Despite earlier weather concerns and a water leak, the Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket launched at 11:30 a.m. PT as fog crept over the hills behind the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch pad. Twenty minutes later the satellite separated and began its orbit around Earth.

The Atlas V rocket with the WorldView-3 satellite on board minutes before launch. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The Atlas V rocket with the WorldView-3 satellite on board minutes before launch. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The 6,200-pound, 18.7-feet-tall WorldView-3 satellite improves the level of detail DigitalGlobe can provide from 15.75 inches to 11.8 inches. That’s enough to suddenly be able to count the number of parking spaces at a shopping mall or identify the location of every manhole and shrub in a city.

“You can actually definitely see (car) windshields,” DigitalGlobe director of next generation products Kumar Navulur said. “We can actually tell you whether it’s a truck or an SUV or a regular car. We can identify pictures of a baseball diamond.”

A trail left by the Atlas V rocket before disappearing out of sight. Photo by Signe Brewster.

A trail left by the Atlas V rocket before disappearing out of sight. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The satellite doesn’t just collect images. It can analyze the composition of clouds and gases and determine if a patch of Earth is starved for water. It can tell if alfalfa or opium is growing in a field. It’s built to be able to spot a drought as it develops and then map resulting food shortages and potential unrest.

Earlier this year, DigitalGlobe helped search for the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It also used its satellite fleet to map the damage after the devastating Moore, Okla., tornado last year within an hour. Knowing where roads are blocked and roofs are damaged can both advise a government of the best way to get citizens to the hospital and let insurance companies know exactly who will be in touch.

WorldView-3 will have the ability to collect data on 251,000 square miles of Earth’s surface each day. It can scan from Washington, D.C., to New York City in 45 seconds. With its entire fleet, DigitalGlobe can now map nearly half of the continental U.S. every 24 hours.

The Giza Pyramids in Egypt, as seen by an existing DigitalGlobe satellite. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

The Giza Pyramids in Egypt, as seen by an existing DigitalGlobe satellite. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

That’s a lot of data. DigitalGlobe relies on cloud computing to crunch the vast majority of it. Its business is not just providing images to customers, but also drawing meaning from them.

The WorldView-3 satellite. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

The WorldView-3 satellite. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

“We said, ‘Where are all the football fields in Colorado?’” Navulur said. “Our automated algorithms … are able to identify all the potential football fields in Colorado. We can do it on Colorado state, we can do it on the United States, we can do it anywhere across the globe. Automated data extraction on a global scale is now possible. For the changing planet, we can create a living inventory of various things.”

WorldView-3‘s height above Earth is equivalent to the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, making its sensing abilities equivalent to spotting an individual human hair across a football field. It collects data with a huge mirror that must be smooth down to the molecular level and positioned incredibly accurately to capture the correct view of Earth.

“If it’s off … by more than the width of a human hair, it’s completely off focus,” Exelis vice president and general manager Rob Mitrevski said.

As computers have grown more powerful, so have satellites. Some of the newest satellites circling Earth are the size of shoeboxes, relying on the equivalent of a mobile phone to collect data. But WorldView-3 is a supercomputer among satellites.

Before WorldView-3, it was illegal to sell images captured from space with an accuracy below 20 inches. DigitalGlobe secured permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce in June to relax that to 15.75 inches. Next year, the limit will drop to 9.84 inches–beyond even what WorldView-3 is capable of capturing.

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