Sharp focus

Next-gen imaging instruments to power WorldView Legion satellites

A birds-eye view of Earth is almost never static. Vehicles and ships move, people relocate to new areas and the environment is in constant flux.

Maxar’s WorldView Legion, a fleet of six Earth-observation satellites, will offer a more accurate and timely view of the ground. The satellites will carry a new imaging instrument from Raytheon Intelligence & Space, one of four businesses that form Raytheon Technologies. It will collect high-resolution images from large, contiguous areas. The number of satellites in orbit will make it possible to revisit a particular area in a short amount of time, producing real-time information that can be important to everything from national security to disaster response and environmental monitoring.

“Our instrument collects images and effectively stitches together a panoramic picture of the ground,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president of Space Systems at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “The amount of images collected will be huge. Each satellite will collect imagery that could cover approximately 700,000 square kilometers – about the size of Texas – every day.”

As a satellite passes an area of interest, it essentially swings back and forth, scanning an area 10 kilometers-wide. The image resolution possible with the new instrument will show a level of detail that was not possible before. Users looking at an image of a parking lot will be able to distinguish between a sedan, an SUV, a motorcycle or truck.

“Say you take an image of a coastal city and a building in this city is obscured by a shadow,” said Earl Choi, WorldView Legion chief engineer for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “Our instrument can not only clearly reveal the building, but let you see underwater obstructions in the nearby ocean, identify different vegetation and soils in the area and tell you the direction of traveling vehicles.”

Sharper image accuracy and a higher revisit rate play an important role in monitoring threats to the public, from missile launches to wildfires or storms. They can also help government and organizations observe and aid in humanitarian crises.

Recently, Maxar satellites showed a rapid growth of Syrian refugee camps in the northern part of that country. In Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation used WorldView images to combat polio by identifying potentially unvaccinated populations in remote areas. And WorldView-3 provided Indonesia’s Navy critical proof of human trafficking, which led to the seizure of tainted cargo and the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves.

“Satellite imagery has transformed how we view Earth,” said Laughrey. “And, there are still many uses for these images that are only now beginning to be explored.”

The first set of WorldView Legion satellites will launch in 2021. To meet a one-payload-per-month schedule, RI&S made a significant investment in advanced techniques, including digital, 3D-model-based instructions for assembly, and a software-based, automated telescope alignment system.

“Telescope alignment is incredibly precise, down to nanometers, and keep in mind, the diameter of a human hair is 75,000 nanometers,” said Choi. “Normally, it’s a manual, time-consuming process. Now, we can make minute adjustments at the click of a button, with higher precision and product quality. It’s a big time-saver.”

The software, hardware and design tools used to accelerate production of the instrument were built from the ground up, with the goal of meeting Maxar’s delivery schedule.

“We committed early on to investing in space automation capabilities to build payloads faster,” said Laughrey. “And, we’re doing just that, delivering one payload per month.”