How can modern satellites photos possibly be accurate to 20 centimeters in 10 kilometers?

By Gerry Mitchell, P.Geo, President PhotoSat

ground control survey points in eritrea test area

3D WorldView-1 satellite view showing the ground survey points in PhotoSat’s Eritrea test area.

 

My intuition rebels at the notion that a satellite orbiting 750 kilometers above the earth, traveling at 7 kilometers per second, could possibly take photos of the ground accurate to 20 centimeters in 10 kilometers. When you take into consideration that these satellites have scanning cameras which take their photos like push brooms, with the north end of the photo taken a few milliseconds before or after the south end, and that the whole satellite is vibrating while the photos are taken, it boggles the mind. It just does not seem that such high accuracy should be possible. However, the satellite photos themselves, checked with tens of thousands of ground survey points, clearly demonstrate that the accuracy is real.

How do the satellites and cameras work?

We engineers and geoscientists in the commercial realm don’t actually know how these satellites and cameras work. Almost all of the technical details of the imaging satellites, their cameras, and their ground processing stations is classified. Or if it’s not classified it’s certainly very difficult to discover. I’ve had many conversations with satellite engineers who seem like they’d love to tell me why their satellites perform so amazingly well. Sadly, they simply aren’t allowed to discuss classified technology with anyone without the proper security clearances.

Whenever I have one of these conversations, it always seems to me that part of what the engineer knows is public and part is classified, but the engineer cannot be sure that he or she can remember what is still classified and what isn’t so it’s safest to say nothing. I’ve had satellite engineers decline to confirm information that is published on their own company’s website. Needless to say, this can make for some very awkward conversations.

We engineers and geoscientists in the commercial world only have access to the satellite photos themselves, and very general public information about the satellites and their cameras.

How accurate are the satellite photos?

When the Digital Globe WorldView-1 (WV1) satellite photos first became commercially available in 2008, PhotoSat acquired stereo photos for a test area in Eritrea where we have over 45,000 precisely surveyed ground points. When we shifted the WV1 photos 3m horizontally to match any survey point, we were amazed to discover that all of the survey points within 10km matched the satellite photos to within 20cm. We eventually documented this discovery in an accuracy study white paper that is now published on our website.

Now, eight years after that initial WorldView-1 accuracy study of the Eritrea test area, we have processed hundreds of satellite photos from the WorldView, Pleiades, SPOT and KOMPSAT satellites and have come to expect this incredible accuracy. I’m still in awe that this is possible and I still don’t know how it is achieved. I do know that the photos are amazingly accurate.

black and white photo of over 15000 ground survey points in PhotoSat Test Area

WorldView-1 satellite photo over the PhotoSat test area in Eritrea. The over 15,000 ground survey points used to confirm that the satellite photo accuracy is better than 20cm in 10km are shown as black dots. The completely black areas are survey points every 20m along lines separated by 100m.

 

 Colour image of a one meter PhotoSat survey grid produced from the WorldView-1 satellite photos

Colour image of a 1m PhotoSat survey grid produced from the WorldView-1 satellite photos. The ground survey points demonstrate that the PhotoSat grid is accurate to 35cm in elevation.

 

 

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