Behind a long rectangular window, in a high white room tended by ghostly figures in masks and hats, a new satellite is taking shape. Once in orbit later this year, WorldView-3 will be one of the most powerful Earth observation satellites ever sent into space by a private company. Spinning around the planet some 600 kilometres (370 miles) above us, it will cover every part of the Earth’s surface every couple of days.
Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado is building WorldView-3 for commercial satellite operator DigitalGlobe. It is the latest in a series of spacecraft designed to beam back high-resolution pictures of our planet, images that most of us will eventually see on Google Maps or Google Earth.
This month Google Maps celebrates its ninth anniversary, and in June so does the company’s 3-D mapping app, Google Earth. Together they have changed the way we view the world. “Everybody I’m sure has looked up their house, their downtown, their business on Google Earth, and seen images from these satellites,” says Jeff Dierks, Program Manager at Ball. “It gives me a lot of pride when I see a satellite image on a news programme with the DigitalGlobe logo on them.”
Rather than operate its own spacecraft, Google buys its images from a small number of commercial satellite operators, and Dierks has worked on most of the satellites used. What’s surprising is how basic the technology is. “At its simplest, it is a decent resolution digital camera in space,” he explains, as we peer through the window into the clean room where the spacecraft is being built.