Satellite resolutions spark interest

Space Imaging Inc. last week released the first commercial high-resolution images taken from space, introducing to federal agencies a new tool for monitoring the world's real estate.

The black-and-white images taken by the company's Ikonos satellite focus on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and represent "one-meter resolution," in which the naked eye is able to distinguish objects that are as small as one meter. The resolution would, for example, allow viewers to count cars but not identify people inside them.

The images are the highest resolution pictures ever taken by a commercial satellite, and observers herald the news from Space Imaging as a breakthrough that will enable civilian agencies to look at activity on the planet's surface in great detail.

The company will charge from $30 per square mile for a simple snapshot of a neighborhood to $600 per square mile for a high-quality image that includes precise measurements and points of reference on the ground. The imagery will be available primarily on CD-ROM, but other media such as magnetic tape will be offered.

Thomas Marchessault, an economist in the Office of the Secretary at the Transportation Department, said transportation planners now monitor the nation's roads, bridges, ports, railways and highways by visiting those sites in person or by examining them using photographs taken by airplanes or low-resolution satellites. He said detailed satellite imagery may offer planners a more efficient way to manage the nation's infrastructure while also enabling them to see more detail.

"The lower-resolution satellite images are great for broad-based looks at an area," he said. "But if Transportation is to use the new remote satellite imagery technology, it has to be the finer resolution."Mark Brender, director of Washington operations for Space Imaging, said the new commercial one-meter imagery should prove useful for NASA, the Agriculture Department and other agencies that need to observe points on the globe but cannot access classified high-resolution imagery. "It's a whole new information technology never available to federal agencies outside the national security agencies," he said.

Brender said the high-resolution imagery will enable agencies such as get a better look at environmental factors near a bridge, for example. "One meter will let you see if there's new runoff areas that will impact on the bridge's connection to the bank," he said.

DOT officials estimate that they have spent $4 million on commercial imagery in fiscal 1999 and believe that they may spend as much as $6 million in the next fiscal year, Marchessault said. He said imagery products the agency buys from Space Imaging will vary in price, depending on how much imagery the department needs and when it wants it. Marchessault said the department would use the imagery for national planning and analysis, as well as for helping state and local transportation officials.

Meanwhile, even the U.S. military, which already produces high-resolution imagery from its own satellites, has shown an interest in what Space Imaging has to offer. In January, the company, whose investors include Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., joined 14 other vendors on the National Imagery and Mapping Agency's Omnibus Geospatial Information and Imagery Intelligence program—a planned five-year, $500 million project aimed at helping the defense agency create detailed maps and charts based on digital data gathered by satellite and aircraft.

But some observers think the agency also should look to foreign sources of imagery to help military leaders get quick pictures of potential hot spots. "NIMA's betting the store on American one-meter imagery after having refused for years to buy Russian one- and two-meter, French 10-meter and Indian five-meter imagery," said Robert Steele, chief executive officer of information consulting firm OSS Group and a former consultant to French imagery provider SPOT Image. "You don't put all your eggs into a one-meter basket."

Ray Byrnes, the U.S. Geological Survey's liaison for satellite programs, said his agency had interest in Space Imaging's new offering and explained that it would complement existing images from satellites such as Landsat 7, a 15-meter satellite operated by NASA and USGS. Byrnes explained that Landsat 7 could show environmental observers a broad area hit by a flood while the Space Imaging satellite could show damage done to a specific property.

But he said pricing of the Ikonos images remains an issue for the federal government, which may want to share images with the public or with allies.

Brender said Space Imaging technically licenses the images to its customers and will charge more if they intend to pass the images on to the public, in the form of posters, for example, or in the form of publicly available images on a World Wide Web site. Brender said he did not yet know how much Space Imaging will charge when a customer intends to sell or redistribute the images to the public.

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