The San Francisco Chronicle March 17, 2003
Eyes in the sky
Photos taken from commercial satellites serve a variety of interests from military to agricultural to humanitarian
By Benjamin Pimentel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Somewhere in outer space, a powerful camera made in Sunnyvale is orbiting the Earth ready to help fight a war, find evidence of genocide or determine the impact of soil erosion.
Since it was launched three years ago, the Ikonos satellite, created by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and operated by its affiliate company, Space Imaging of Colorado, has taken photographs that helped U.S. troops drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and allowed the city of Mountain View to better assess its water supply.
Cruising at 17,000 mph more than 400 miles above Earth, the 1,600-pound device is part of an emerging industry that has made high-resolution satellite images -- once the exclusive domain of military and intelligence agencies -- available commercially to corporations, nonprofit groups, the media and even individuals.
In the event of a war with Iraq, Ikonos and other satellites run by private corporations can relay images that could help U.S. military planners draft battle plans or enable journalists covering the war to verify reports of bombing damage or even mass killings.
Some nonprofit organizations hope the satellites will allow relief agencies to respond faster to a potential refugee crisis by showing where to look for civilians fleeing the fighting.
"We're entering an age of transparency, a time when the Earth is going to be ringed with commercial imaging cameras from many countries that can track changes on the Earth and and what man is doing to it," said Mark Brender, executive director of Space Imaging's government affairs and corporate communications.
The U.S. government has been taking photos from outer space for military and civilian purposes for decades, but they were mostly classified.
In the mid-1980s, a French company, Spot Image, began making satellite pictures available to governments and private companies and organizations. The potential of commercial satellite images became evident during the Persian Gulf War, when Spot Image sold photos to the U.S. military for use in making maps and assessing damage caused by bombing operations.
"The Gulf War opened everybody's eyes to the value of commercial satellite imagery," said Clark Nelson, senior director of marketing for Spot Image.
The U.S. government has had access to high-resolution images through its own secure satellites. But because of the growing need for pictures in the military as well as other agencies, the federal government began to turn more to private firms such as Spot Image.
U.S. AGENCY FOR IMAGING
The demand became so great that the National Imaging and Mapping Agency was created in 1996 to oversee the collecting and processing of satellite images for the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence agencies.
"Commercial assets extend our ability immensely," said Dave Burpee, spokesman for the imaging agency. "The private sector lets us do things that we cannot otherwise accomplish in the medium to low priority."
For example, a medium or low priority might be a photograph of the Tora Bora area in Afghanistan, he said, while a high priority requiring the military's more sensitive equipment could be a specific cave in that area.
Worried the U.S. tech industry was falling behind in the new industry, Congress and the Clinton administration came out with new policies in the early 1990s that allowed corporations to sell high-resolution satellite images.
Those moves paved the way for satellite-imaging technology to expand its reach from the "black world of intelligence to the white world of commerce," Brender said.
Space Imaging, whose leading investors include Lockheed and Raytheon, was founded in 1994 and became the first U.S. company to sell satellite images and imaging services after the launch of Ikonos in September 1999.
In October 2001, Digital Globe, based in Colorado, launched its QuickBird satellite, becoming the second U.S. firm to enter the commercial satellite- imaging market.
A third U.S. company, Orbimage in Virginia, is expected to launch its own high-resolution satellite later this year.
The U.S. industry got a boost last June when George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he intended to help American satellite- imaging firms expand their markets by having intelligence agencies buy more of their products.
Two months ago, the imaging agency said that it had committed to buy satellite images from U.S. firms through contracts worth $500 million during the next five years.
Analyst Ron Stearns of Frost and Sullivan said the contracts give the U.S. satellite-imaging industry "a true anchor client" that will bring in steady revenue.
He estimated that sales in satellite images and imaging services reached about $237 million last year and could grow to $772 million by 2007.
While the U.S. military remains the industry's biggest customer, American firms are focusing on other clients. In Mountain View, Space Imaging helped create a map that enabled urban planners to determine the level of water usage in different parts of the city for conservation purposes.
Digital Globe's maps included color-coded information to help farmers determine the health of crops in large tracts. Through near-infrared technology, healthy vegetation emitted strong red signals that were recorded onto the maps, while crops that had deteriorated gave off black signals, said Chuck Herring, the company's director of communications.
Satellite images have also become sharper and clearer with the help of more powerful lenses, faster computers and more sophisticated software.
While Spot Image sold high-resolution photos of an area 33 feet wide a decade ago, today it offers clear images at 8 feet. Its U.S. competitors do even better: Digital Globe can go down to 1.9 feet and Space Imaging to 2.6 feet.
The images also have become less expensive. A Space Imaging data set of a 19-square-mile area in the United States costs as little as $350, Brender said.
Nelson of Spot Image said an image that cost $5,000 10 years ago now costs less than $1,000.
These lower prices have made satellite images affordable even to nonprofit groups such as the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., which is dedicated to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
In December, the organization bought $2,000 worth of Digital Globe images exposing secret weapons facilities in Iran. The expose led to an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Cost is not an unsurmountable barrier, the way it was in the past," said Corey Hinderstein, the group's assistant director and senior analyst.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a group that has worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues, said precision is important when it comes to using satellite images for research. His organization has spent thousands of dollars looking for Chinese missile bases, but has ended up with meaningless photos of rural China, including pig pens.
Pike said he hopes to expand the use of the technology for human rights work and wants to come up with a manual to help identify mass graves and massacre sites.
Hinderstein said that in addition to eyewitness accounts and interviews on the ground, satellite photos would be a critical tool in uncovering mass killings.
"Satellite imagery is an arrow in our quiver," she said. "There can now be some accountability to the statements and conclusions that governments and international institutions were making that in the past the public could not have independent judgment on."
There are also constraints in the use of satellite images. The U.S. government has the authority to shut down a satellite system if it feels that national security or foreign obligations may be compromised.
The United States has never invoked that provision, dubbed shutter control. But during the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the government spent about $9 million to buy all of Space Imaging's satellite time and images of Afghanistan and Pakistan during a two-month period.
Mapping agency spokeswoman Joan Mears said the agency had a limited database on that area and needed to build one fast for Operation Enduring Freedom. But critics led by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which represents major broadcast networks, blasted the move, calling it "checkbook shutter control."
"It was censorship by other means," said Dan Dubno, a CBS-TV news producer and chairman of the association's committee on satellite imaging issues.
The association has been pushing the government to junk its policy and apply accepted rules that bar prior restraint on the media.
Dubno said U.S. military authorities have assured the media that there will be no attempts to suppress satellite images in a potential war in Iraq, which should allow for better news coverage.
"An independent camera in international air space will give the world the ability to understand what's going on," he said. "It's harder to cover up a genocide. It's harder to cover up a refugee crisis. It's harder to cover up storage of chemical or biological weapons. The more eyes that can look at the Earth, the safe and the saner a world we'll have."
SATELLITE IMAGE INDUSTRY AT A GLANCE
Main players: Space Imaging (Colorado), Digital Globe (Colorado), Spot Image (France)
Biggest customers: U.S. government agencies including the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, local and state governments, oil and mining exploration firms, environmental organizations.
What you can see: Satellites orbiting Earth can record high-resolution images of an area roughly 9 square feet. That means clear photos of a cars on streets or trees in a park.
Average cost of images: For U.S. firms, prices can be as low as $7 for an area less than half a square mile. Space Imaging charges $350 for data on a 19- square-mile area in the United States.
E-mail Benjamin Pimentel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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