300 N. Washington St.
Suite B-100
Alexandria, VA 22314

GlobalSecurity.org In the News

wired.com January 18, 2002

U.S. Ends Afghan Image Contract

By Joanna Glasner

A U.S. agency has terminated an agreement with a commercial satellite firm that had given the federal government exclusive rights to its high-resolution images of Afghanistan.

On Friday, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), a support agency for the U.S. Department of Defense, confirmed that it decided not to renew a contract originally signed in October with Denver-based Space Imaging.

The contract, which NIMA renewed once in November, gave the agency rights to images collected by Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite, a first-of-its-kind commercial satellite capable of capturing images of the Earth's surface in one-meter resolution. (That means objects one meter or larger can stand out in pictures.)

NIMA had renewed the contract once in November but let it expire on Dec. 5. Over the past several weeks, the agency and Space Imaging discussed the possibility of extending an agreement but ultimately rejected such a plan.

"NIMA did not renew it simply because after several months the situation had changed, and we re-evaluated," said Joan Mears, a spokeswoman for the agency.

With a contract no longer in effect, the bulk of images shot for the Pentagon and NIMA will now be available for sale to the public, said Mark Brender, Space Imaging's director of government affairs. However, he said the company is still negotiating with the government for rights to a small portion of the satellite data.

Part of the government's decision to end the imaging contract was probably financially motivated, said Tim Brown, an analyst at the military think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

"It's $2 million a month, and I believe that for the most part it was something of an experiment," he said. "The Defense Department's not immune to wasting money."

Brown said another likely reason for canceling the contract was that the government did not see a great security risk in having images available to third parties. Except for special clients such as the U.S. military, there is typically a lag of weeks or months between the time an order for an image is placed and the data is delivered, he said.

In addition, satellite data isn't detailed enough to help the military in its mission of locating Osama Bin Laden, Brown said.

"The imagery isn't of sufficient resolution to detect people, let alone recognize them," he said.

Space Imaging's Brender said the company is not publishing fully processed images of Afghanistan on its website. But people will be able to browse thumbnail images at a resolution of 16 meters, which offer a far less detailed picture than the 1 meter images available for sale.

"This sort of imagery, now that it's available and NIMA no longer retains the licensing rights to it, is ideal to reconstruction," Brender said.

It could provide a base map that could be valuable for rebuilding telecommunications networks or other damaged infrastructure, he said.

The collection of images, which includes, among other things, before and after shots of Afghanistan's bomb-riddled Kandahar airport, also provide "a historical look at the conduct of the conflict as best documented from 423 miles in space," Brender said.

Although the Afghanistan contract was not the first time the Pentagon purchased commercial satellite images, Space Imaging said it was the first time the military had purchased images during a declared conflict.

Copyright 1994-2002 Wired Digital Inc. All rights reserved.