To remain globally competitive, DigitalGlobe needs the federal government to lift restrictions on commercial use of the high-resolution images captured by WorldView-3, its newest satellite, executives said Tuesday.

Boulder-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies hosted the last public viewing of the 6,200-pound bird that it built for Longmont-based DigitalGlobe. Ball is finishing its final tests on the satellite and preparing to ship it to the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California next month.

Centennial-based United Launch Alliance is the rocket provider with a scheduled launch window of Aug. 13-14.

"This is very much a Colorado mission," said Rob Strain, president of Ball Aerospace. "It's a satellite built by Ball, a Colorado company, for a Colorado company and launched by a Colorado company."

This marks the first launch since DigitalGlobe merged with its former rival, GeoEye, picking up two other in-orbit satellites in the process. WorldView-3 brings its fleet count up to six.

The U.S. intelligence community last month publicly supported DigitalGlobe's request that the federal government lift its restriction on Earth-imagery resolution, which is currently throttled to 50 centimeters. WorldView-3 has the capability of producing 30-centimeter resolution images but is not allowed to sell them to non-U.S. government customers.


DigitalGlobe founder and chief technical officer Walter Scott said 30-centimeter resolution — which allows viewers to discern, for example, the windshield of a car and the direction the car is facing — already is available on some aerial imagery, which is taken from airplanes and used by applications such as Google.

The U.S. government's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is the company's largest customer, but to compete for commercial customers against emerging satellite providers in India and France, where there are fewer restrictions, DigitalGlobe says it needs to be able to sell higher-resolution images.

"How important is it to have the higher resolution? Extremely," DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tarr said. "More customers buy as they push us for resolution and accuracy, and spectral diversity."

High resolution is useful for military and government purposes, but some experts question how much resolution actually is needed.

"If you are going to have the most powerful imaging satellite out there, whether that would be a good thing for your company, I think, really depends on what your target market is and what services you are looking to fill," Teal Group space analyst Marco Cáceres said. "Not everyone needs 30-centimeter resolution. That's more of a surveillance capability. ... (Tarr) must be saying that they have certain clients that need that."

WorldView-3 is not just about resolution. The satellite's new, defining features include a short-wave infrared resolution that sees through dust, smog and smoke as well as things on Earth invisible to the naked eye.

"It allows you to see minerals, and if you get the right mix of minerals on the soil, you can tell what might be beneath it, which can be used for mining or oil and gas exploration," said Matt Clark, who is on DigitalGlobe's product team.

Scott said nearly all exploration companies are facing the same barrier since "all the easy stuff has been found," but he added, "We believe that WorldView-3 can not only help with that exploration, but the environmental monitoring and regulations once it is explored."

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