Spies and sensors everywhere

Every bad guy in the world is going to be buying these pictures.

The finer the resolution, the better the image. With 10-meter resolution, you'd never guess these were jet planes; with 3-meter resolution, you couldn't mistake them. Photos on this page © EarthWatch, Inc.

blast off

  An eye in the sky
Eager to lend a high-tech sheen to your marketing efforts for a subdivision of "executive homes"? it's watching youWouldn't a satellite photo be great for highlighting the woods and the artificial lake?

Concerned about new roads in the wilderness in Montana, Brazil or literally anywhere else? A series of eye-in-the-sky satellites is almost ready to sell you up-to-the-minute photos.

Fighting a forest fire? Before long, downloading a photo of today's conditions, fresh from a satellite, may be less costly -- not to mention less risky -- than renting a plane.

Worried about a weapons buildup in a neighboring country? You should be able to simply dial up a satellite photograph. The pictures about to go on sale are not as detailed as those taken by the latest U.S. spy satellites, but within a year or so, they'll show objects one meter across.

This technology, called "one-meter resolution" is enough for all the above chores. (The resolution of U.S. spy satellites is presumed to be better, but it's secret.)

3m view v. 10m view

When they were first launched in the early 1960s, spy satellites were the pride and joy of the U.S. and Soviet militaries. Indeed, many observers credit satellite photos -- and their accurate info about bombers, missiles and navies -- for calming tensions during the Cold War.

It didn't take geographers, ecologists and meteorologists long to realize that orbiting cameras had dozens of non-military uses. Landsat, the first of many civilian satellite systems, offered 20-meter resolution. In 1986, SPOT, a French satellite, began making 10-meter resolution photos for sale.

Gone private
Now, courtesy of a 1994 U.S. decision allowing technology developed for spy satellites to be used commercially, two U.S. firms are poised to enter the market.

In December, the EarthWatch Corp. launched EarlyBird I, which will be capable of photographing objects three meters across if and when the company overcomes a communications glitch. By the end of 1999, a second satellite from EarthWatch, and one from Space Imaging EOSAT, are slated to begin selling one-meter images. By then, a French and an Israeli company may also have orbiting cameras.

Both U.S. companies are headquartered in Colorado. Both use technology, personnel and skills honed on generations of spy satellites, and on the earth-observing satellites that evolved from them. Still, the firms are chary about being cast as "spy" satellite firms. The technology "derives from remote sensing, not spy satellites," insists Bob Weintzen, EarthWatch representative. "Would you call LandSat a spy satellite?"

Perhaps not, but it's naive to think that the new satellites won't be pressed into service by countries that can't afford their own satellites. As John Pike, the space guru at the Federation of American Scientists told New Scientist, "Every bad guy in the world is going to be buying these pictures" (see "Every Move You Make" in the bibliography). And Gerald Steinberg of the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University (Israel) told the magazine that the satellite companies "know that a substantial part of their market is going to be dictators and the military."

Capping the lens
To prevent foes from profiting from the government's most precious technology, a directive from President Clinton established "shutter control" on the American satellites. "The U.S. State Department can ask us to shut down the imaging system in a crisis," says Weintzen, "if it would put U.S. troops at risk. It's a complete shutdown, and we wholeheartedly support that control." He adds that the company will not do business with "rogue" nations like Iraq or North Korea.

Yet will shutter control be effective? After all, aggressors can simply order photos before hostilities begin. Furthermore, Iraq has proven its ability to order nuclear-weapons supplies through front companies. EarthWatch will be reasonably diligent, Weintzen says, but "you have to recognize that once an image is taken, it's out there, and you can't control it."

And some of the foreign systems will be entirely free of that shutter control.

In terms of civilian uses, the satellite companies see a prime marketplace among businesses and governments that build roads, mines and electric lines.

A typical EarthWatch map will cover about 100 square kilometers. If it's available in the company's archives, it will cost $2.75 per square kilometer. The price rises to $3.75 if the photo must be taken specially, and zooms to $7.25 for an image delivered as soon as possible -- as would be needed for a television news program or an invading army.

Despite the fact that maps are limited or non-existent in much of the world, Weintzen expects the main market to be in the United States. "The U.S. infrastructure is growing so fast, changing so quickly. Some subdivisions are not reflected in maps that are less than a year old, and many place have not been mapped for longer periods than that."

Flying cameras spy on pollution.

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