Crowd packs in for live-streaming of latest DigitalGlobe satellite launch

DENVER – About 350 people packed into the auditorium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Wednesday to hear Colorado aerospace industry professionals lend insight to the live-streamed launch of DigitalGlobe Inc.’s WorldView-3 satellite.

The launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California had been about four years in the making, and drew kudos from various politicians directed at the several Colorado companies that played roles in the development of the satellite and the launch itself.

“WorldView-3 is truly a Colorado endeavor from start to finish,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a videotaped address that was shown to the standing-room-only crowd at the museum.

WorldView-3, at a cost well north of $500 million, will be capable of providing images from low-Earth orbit with resolution of 31 centimeters, in addition to new ability that allows DigitalGlobe to see through clouds, smoke and weather to monitor what is happening on the ground.

Longmont-based DigitalGlobe sells its high-resolution satellite imagery to government and commercial customers such as Google.

Boulder-based Ball Aerospace built WorldView-3, as it has for three previous DigitalGlobe satellites. Exelis, which also has a presence in Colorado, built much of the imagery equipment. Lockheed Martin helped play a role in the launch, which occurred upon an Atlas 5 rocket made by Centennial-based United Launch Alliance.

“WorldView-3 is itself a testament to how Colorado’s aerospace industry is leading the nation, driving innovation and helping our state win the global economic race,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in a prepared statement.

The WorldView-3 satellite will include multiple capabilities that its predecessors haven’t, including new ranges of color that will be visible.

DigitalGlobe, Ball, Exelis, Lockheed Martin and ULA all had representatives at the museum Wednesday explaining different roles their companies played. Mike Conschafter, senior strategic account manager at Exelis, said the satellite would be able to tell things such as the species of a tree and whether it is healthy or damaged.

“We’re going to get a lot of capabilities that have never been done before with a commercial system,” Conschafter said.

Aside from the 350 in the auditorium, an overflow crowd of a few hundred more watched on another big screen at the museum and cheered as the rocket carrying WorldView-3 blasted off and accelerated to the speed of sound in 78 seconds. Nineteen minutes after it left Earth, the satellite was released from the rocket into orbit.

Luke Barrington, DigitalGlobe’s senior manager of geospatial big data, said plenty of testing of systems has to be done before WorldView-3 is fully operational, which won’t be for a month or two.

The industry representatives in attendance were clearly excited and anxious all at the same time. A few minutes after launch, as the group answered questions from the crowd while the rocket accelerated away from Earth, Barrington drew laughs.

“My heart is beating a little less but hasn’t completely started palpitating,” Barrington quipped.

DigitalGlobe’s next launch is already in the works. The company announced this summer that WorldView-4 would launch in 2016. That satellite, acquired in the acquisition of competitor GeoEye, is mostly built and was originally named GeoEye-2.

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