U.S. Is Relaxing Rules on Sale of Satellite Photos

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2000 ; Page A03

Originally posted at: http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14261-2000Dec15.html

The federal government has licensed a Colorado firm to sell extremely high-resolution satellite photographs to its customers around the world, effectively relinquishing intelligence agencies' monopoly on precision imagery from space.

Without public announcement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted the license to Space Imaging Inc. two weeks ago after a year-long policy review by the White House, Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community.

"This was so important that it was reviewed at the highest levels of the government," Charles T. Wooldridge, a NOAA satellite licensing official, said yesterday. "Clearly, it took us some time to assure that all the equities of the various agencies had been addressed."

Allowing the sale of photographs that are taken from more than 400 miles in space, yet clearly show objects as small as 19 inches in length, represents a major development for the commercial satellite industry and the national security community.

Starting in 2004, when Space Imaging plans to launch its next-generation imaging satellite, everyone from urban planners and environmental groups to foreign governments and extremists may have access to "half-meter resolution" images of cities, airports and military bases around the globe, down to what type of radar is mounted on what model tank.

Ray A. Williamson, a research professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said he believes the government's decision to license half-meter imagery stands to make the world a safer and more transparent place, even with high-resolution satellite photographs in the hands of potential adversaries.

But there will be obvious growing pains, he said. More than a few nations that have deceived their citizens for years about secret government projects probably are already worried about the less detailed, one-meter imagery currently available from Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite, launched 15 months ago, Williamson said.

Concerns also persist among some national security analysts over the possibility that satellite photos of U.S. and allied military forces could be acquired, through third parties, by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or anti-Western groups in the Middle East.

But such fears were ultimately allayed within the government, Williamson said, by the "shutter controls" established by the Clinton administration on commercial imaging satellites six years ago.

These allow the government to shut down commercial satellites to protect national security, as well as any time "international obligations or foreign policy interests may be compromised."

The license granted to Space Imaging, a $700 million joint venture led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., also prohibits the firm from providing customers with satellite pictures within 24 hours of the time they are taken, a delay that significantly diminishes the value of satellite imagery in times of armed conflict, when commanders want to know about enemy troop movements as quickly as possible.

Whatever security concerns remain, senior military and intelligence officials supported the license, largely for self-interested reasons. They are eager to buy high-resolution imagery from U.S. firms to relieve some of the pressure on the National Reconnaissance Office's overtasked fleet of billion-dollar spy satellites.

"That's exactly what it comes down to," said NRO spokesman Rick Oborn. "On any given day, we cannot come close to fulfilling all the tasks that are given to us."

Space Imaging's launch of Ikonos last year was a milestone for the commercial satellite industry, producing imagery that can resolve objects a meter (39.4 inches) in diameter, twice as good as Russian imagery and five times better than an Indian satellite.

Because it will be sharper in two dimensions, half-meter imagery from Space Imaging's next satellite actually will be about four times--not just twice--as detailed as the firm's one-meter pictures.

Some U.S. spy satellites, by comparison, are said to produce imagery as fine as 10 centimeters, although their exact resolution is classified.

According to the National Image Interpretability Rating Scales, an unclassified measurement system developed by the intelligence community, one-meter imagery can resolve "an open missile silo door," half-meter imagery can distinguish between "vehicle-mounted" and "trailer-mounted" radars, and 10-centimeter resolution can resolve "the rivet lines on bomber aircraft."

While the National Imagery and Mapping Agency spends millions of dollars a year on one-meter photographs from Space Imaging, the new half-meter imagery will be of far greater utility in mapmaking and battle planning, officials said.

"When you get down to half-meter, you're starting to get closer to the specifics of what is on the ground," Oborn said. "Is that a tank or an armored personnel carrier? The additional resolution allows you to discern kinds of vehicle and kinds of armament."

John Copple, Space Imaging's chief executive officer, predicted that the new imagery would be of greatest use to U.S. intelligence agencies and said government purchases could well provide half of the firm's revenues after the new satellite is launched.

But Copple said urban planners, forestry companies and the telecommunications industry also want half-meter photographs for detailed planning and mapping. At half-meter resolution, he said, forestry officials can count trees, and urban planners can view streetscapes, even discerning manhole covers.

Last updated 12.17.03