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25 years of Spot satellites

Images of our planet for an extensive range of applications

Ever since 22 February 1986, the Spot satellites have been keeping a watchful eye on the Earth. For 25 years, this series of optical observation satellites has been providing images of our planet for an extensive range of applications, such as cartography, crop forecasts, geological exploration, and disaster management.

All five of the Spot satellites were developed and built by Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor, responsible for the platform and high-resolution imaging system.

The multi-mission Spot platform series, initially designed for the French space agency CNES, is recognised as an industry standard, and is today in use for nearly all the European low Earth orbit observation satellites, including the Helios military surveillance satellites, the ERS radar satellites, the environmental monitoring Envisat, and the MetOp weather satellites.

The Spot satellites are operated by Airbus Defence and Space GEO-Information, formerly Spot Image, and now an integrated part of Airbus Defence and Space. Airbus Defence and Space GEO-Information is a world-leading supplier of satellite-imagery derived geographic information products and services.

The success of the Spot series dates back to its earliest days – Spot 1, launched on 22 February 1986 on board the last Ariane 1 rocket, had been destined for a three-year lifetime, but actually served 18 active years, providing nearly three million images before being conscientiously de-orbited and then disintegrated to best respect the space environment in November 2003.

Launch of Spot 1

Spot 1 represented a technological leap in the field of Earth observation, in that it could produce images of unprecedented precision with a resolution of 10 metres, hitherto unparalleled for a civil satellite. Just three days after its launch, the satellite returned its first images, proof of remarkable performance.

Spot 1 in integration

Spot 2 was launched in January 1990, and Spot 3 In September 1993. As in the case of its big brother Spot 1, the decision was also taken to deorbit Spot 2, and after 19 years of successful operation, the mission finally came to an end in July 2009. Spot 3 was withdrawn from service in 1996 following a technical problem.

Two Spot satellites are currently in operational use, allowing daily observation of virtually any point on the globe: Spot 4, launched in March 1998, produces 10-metre resolution images and Spot 5, launched in May 2002, delivers a resolution of up to 2.5 metres over an extended observation swath.

Spot 5 is a major force in the satellite imagery domain, with an impressive 80% share of the world market for two-metre-range imagery. To ensure long-term continuity in high-resolution data while competition gets ever tougher, Airbus Defence and Space decided, in March 2009 to launch a new project with private financing, AstroTerra,. This aims to put the Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites into orbit in September 2012 and January 2014, respectively, guaranteeing smooth transition for the Spot family.

Jean Dauphin, Airbus Defence and Space’s Head of Earth Observation & Science, France, applauds Spot’s success: “The first Spot satellite was a true pioneer in making space-based imagery of our globe available on a commercial basis. The Spot series has gone from strength to strength and is recognition of both the engineering savoir-faire of Airbus Defence and Space and the marketing expertise of Spot Image – now part of the Airbus Defence and Space fold. With Airbus Defence and Space already well advanced on the design and build of the next-generation Spot 6/7 – an ambitious programme with challenging technological objectives, offering a more efficient and competitive solution as part of a wholly AIRBUS Group-funded approach – we are looking forward to continuing this hugely successful partnership.”

Gérard Brachet, Spot Image’s CEO from 1982 to 1994, is also full of praise for the ground-breaking Spot adventure: “Created in 1982 and fully up and running with the launch of the first Spot satellite exactly 25 years ago, Spot Image was the first commercial company in the world to operate Earth observation satellites. It was down to its extensive global network and the quality and enthusiasm of its personnel in Toulouse, Washington, Sydney, Singapore and Beijing that it well and truly cracked this new market. The excellent performance of the five successive Spot satellites, all of which were primed by Matra Marconi Space – later to become Airbus Defence and Space – played a major role in this success.”

Patrick Le Roch, head of Airbus Defence and Space’ GEO Division, concludes: “As a newcomer to Airbus Defence and Space, I am very impressed by the Spot legacy and could not be happier to have taken over the reigns of such a successful business. We have an exciting future ahead of us as we enter a new era with Spot 6/7 operational just a few years from now.”


SPOTGeoinformation Services