Indian launch for British colour video Earth observation prototype

Low-cost, full-colour technology demonstrator satellite blazes trail for planned constellation

The satellite, known as CARBONITE-2 by its builder, Surrey Satellite Terchnology Ltd (SSTL) and as VividX2 by its operator, Earth-I (based, like SSTL, in Guildford) is intended to demonstrate and prove technology to acquire high-definition, full-colour video of the Earth’s surface from an altitude of 550km.

Capable of gathering 50 frames of images per second, the equipment should be able to resolve objects as small as 65cm on the ground. If successful, Earth-i plans to launch a constellation of 15 such satellites, which could have applications in disaster relief and monitoring rapidly-changing situations.

The Vivid2 satellite in the cleanroom prior to launch

While video Earth observation from orbit is not a new concept, previously only short clips at relatively low resolution and not in full colour have been recorded. Moreover, VividX2 is a trial of a new approach to Earth observation. Rather than using components developed specifically for space, its video equipment is commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics originally developed for mobile devices. A previous demonstrator, also made by SSTL, proved the feasibility of using this approach for video capture and transmission; the new satellite adds auxiliary systems such as enhanced avionics, data storage, fast downlink and improved pointing accuracy, as well as a full-colour HD camera.

The advantage of the COTS approach is that it reduces the cost of the satellite and also exploits the previous commercially-driven development work in miniaturising the equipment, allowing the satellite to be lighter and more compact. VividX2 weighs 100kg, around two-thirds the mass of other observation spacecraft.

Successful launch from Satish Dhawan

The launch was carried out from the Satish Dhawan spaceport in Southeastern India on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket, along with 30 other commercial payloads. Earth-i has already signed a contract with SSTL to supply the first five satellites in its proposed constellation, secured ground network services from Norwegian Kongsberg Satellite Services, and commissioned Swedish photogrammetry and imagery specialist, Spacemetric, to manage, catalogue and geometrically correct images and video from its new prototype satellite.

The Vivid-i constellation is claimed to be able to provide high-frame rate images with resolutions better than one metre for any location on Earth; to film moving objects such as vehicles, vessels and aircraft in Ultra High Definition colour video; and revisit the same location multiple times per day with agile satellites that can be pointed to image specific areas of interest. This will allow it to carry out tasks such as monitoring traffic flow in and around cities and movements of shipping. Positioning the satellite to take slightly offset images rather than observing from directly overhead would allow detailed relief models of the objective, which could be used to make maps for disaster relief teams.

Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth Observation Programmes at the European Space Agency (ESA) said: The launch of VividX2 is a significant next development of Earth-i’s constellation, and welcomed by ESA.  The Vivid-i Constellation will provide capabilities we haven’t seen before including full-colour video, and an assured stream of high-quality data from space to help improve both our planet and our lives on Earth.”

Richard Blain, CEO of Earth-i, added: “Today is a significant milestone for Earth-i and for the global space industry. It’s the culmination of much hard work by the teams at Earth-i and SSTL. We are now researching and testing the technology and data services for the Vivid-i Constellation using the still and video imagery from this prototype – and showing our customers what will be possible in the future from new capabilities such as colour video from space.”