Monday, May 23, 2016

Earth observation satellite development - out of gas?

The public imagination on the issue of satellite based ground imaging is far in excess of the reality that physics permits. As the public's fantasy easily penetrates national security decision-making on technology, it is inevitable that a sense of disappointment grows with such technology. Since the technology is quite expensive, even if one has a lot of investment in that technology - one is still left groaning each time around one sees the bill for the next big-ticket item.

As the price of the next "consumable" appears on the budget, one is forced to ask the question

"Do we really need this?"

This is a valid question - clearly it is a good idea to have satellite based imagery, but does a government gain anything by maintaining a fleet of satellites? - can the mission be better achieved by private imagery suppliers and a "pay-per-view" model that allows the various national customers to purchase data as needed?

It is worthwhile to examine what the main limitations of satellite based imaging are:

1) You can't guarantee that the satellite will be able to see an arbitrary spot on the planet at an arbitrary time. Availability itself is a challenge (orbital period and dwell time are both issues) and then given the predictability of the path, it is relatively easy for opposing forces to defeat the surveillance regime.

2) Even if the satellite is overhead, you can't guarantee that the image taken will not suffer from unacceptable levels of distortion and optical artifacts (I am including any and all optical correction effects you can carry out with advanced image processing)

3) Even if you have a good image - the bandwidth to download it is not always available. This makes it hard to get timely data unless you have the intelligence and foresight to book the bandwidth ahead of time.

4) In the limit you have all of the above, you still have to deal with satellite lifetimes which can be limited by natural factors, technical defects, accidents involving space debris, and finally enemy interference.

All that weighs heavily on people who have to take decisions in such matters. These decisions were a lot easier in the early days when no such imagery was available from any other sources and the risk posed by direct overflights was significant. Now... things are different.

Obviously things have come a long way since the early days of satellite imaging. And projects like  MOIRE are interesting but we are still a long way from where the demands set by public imagination are.  Private industry has been growing capacity for this satellite related work. There has been a boom in startups with earth imaging capabilities. Theoretically one can hand things off to private players, but one has a separate set of problem keeping the startups's claims ... how should I say this delicately... "aligned with the truth".

As satellites go - one simply has to keep investing in higher and higher risk projects and that is a problem in the mission critical sphere of things. This seems undesirable in the current economic climate.

The gaps in the satellite coverage are significant and platforms like the TR-2 have to be kept active. Despite all the satellite advantages, most air forces in the world still have LOROP type mission profiles and a number of high endurance drones are being developed. These are risky missions and risky platforms but the bill seems much smaller.

If one is anyway dependent on earth based observation platforms, does it not seem sensible to focus on those and leave the entire EOS side of things to the private players?

2 Comments:

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Nanana said...

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At 5:10 AM, Blogger maverick said...

replied

 

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