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Satellite industry outlook
Satellite-based Earth observation: a fast-growing sector
Dr Hamadoun Touré
photo credit: DigitalGlobe
WorldView-2, launched on 8 October 2009 by DigitalGlobe, is a high-resolution, remote-sensing satellite that provides Earth observation in eight bands of multi-spectral imagery

The satellite-based Earth observation sector is witnessing dramatic growth, with 260 satellite launches expected between 2009 and 2018, compared to 128 in the previous decade. According to Euroconsult’s report Satellite-Based Earth Observation: Market Prospects to 2018 released on 3 September 2009, governments and private stakeholders will play an important role in driving and benefiting from growth. Leading Space agencies, such as the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have outlined ambitious programmes for the coming decade.

With booming demand expected for both complex and low-cost Earth observation missions, the manufacturing and launch industries are likely to enjoy significant returns, says the report. Emerging countries could represent up to 17 per cent of demand for low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to be launched over the next ten years. Many of these countries use Earth observations for such important local needs as monitoring natural resources and disaster relief, while also seeing the satellites as a first step towards national Space programmes. Competition is intensifying as barriers to market entry fall and emerging suppliers expand their capabilities by means of technology transfer initiatives.

Demand for data fuels growth

Public investments in civil government Earth observation activities reached USD 5 billion in 2008, and the sector remains largely dependent on governments for research and development and as customers for data. Increasingly, though, public agencies are looking to sell data commercially. With a projected growth of 33 per cent in 2009, the commercial data market is expected to reach USD 1.2 billion in revenues.

Leading positions in this field have been carved out by Earth observation satellite operators DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, based in the United States. Together with European-based SPOT Image, a subsidiary of Astrium Services, these operators now account for 63 per cent of total revenues from commercial data sales. The European Union’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative is designed to develop operational Earth observation services for use by public entities. Services such as this are expected to further stimulate the market.

The private sector has been reluctant to adopt Earth observation products and services, with the exception of the oil and gas industries. But recently, there has been a boost from the mass-market appeal of “virtual globes” such as Google Earth. The market for individual consumers is seeing rapid development, with leading operators and service providers forming partnerships with geographic information system (GIS) companies and manufacturers of mobile devices, aimed at supplying location-based services using Earth observation data.

 

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