- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

For a long time various companies have sold satellite imagery of the Earth for example, SPOT in France. This isn't news.But resolution is getting better lots better.This is news.
Early this year probably in February a company called DigitalGlobe (www.DigitalGlobe.com) in Longmont, Colo., will begin selling satellite imagery of the Earth at a resolution of 61 centimeters (about two feet).If this sounds like a dry technical specification, look at some of the photos on the Web site.
There is a picture of the Royal Grand Palace in Bangkok that looks as if it had been taken from a hang glider.You can see (barely) individual people coming through a gate.Shrubs, cars, outbuildings are clearly visible. Photos of Washington, including some of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, provide startling detail.
This resolution is not technically surprising: Highly classified spy satellites are known to be far better (and incredibly expensive). What is of interest is that reasonably high resolution is moving into civilian commerce. DigitalGlobe's satellite, a 2,100-pound machine called QuickBird with enough fuel aboard for seven years of operation, probably puts the U.S. space-imagery business in the lead in resolution for the moment. However, said a DigitalGlobe spokesman, France is developing what will likely be a comparable system. Foreign companies still hold the commercial lead in imagery.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want detailed pictures from space?Actually there are lots of reasons.Urban planning and agricultural surveillance are common uses. Mapping is another.
Surveillance satellites can provide much more than just pictures.For example, they can look at things at different wavelengths in different colors, so to speak. This has long been done for purposes of national intelligence. (DigitalGlobe doesn't do spying, but the principle is interesting.)
Suppose that a factory in a hostile county emits a cloud of smoke. What does the factory make?You might not be able to tell: Smoke is smoke.
But if you view it at varying wavelengths, you see that it looks different at each.Smoke from different kinds of factory contains compounds that absorb light at particular wavelengths but not at others. Consequently you can get a pretty good idea of what the factory does.
QuickBird does this, with less sophistication, for commercial purposes. Resolution is less for this "multispectral" imaging, but is fine for agricultural purposes. Says the company, "2.8 meter resolution multispectral imagery is well suited for observing large fields, small-plot high-value crops; as well as individual tree crowns in orchard groves.Crop and soil types, moisture content; stress and damage can all be detected. "
Perhaps the greater importance of improved satellites in the long term is an increase in what might be called the Fishbowl Effect. The consequence, though not the intention, of the rapidly growing capacity to collect and transmit information is that things that were once private or confidential end up in the open.
More and more aspects of our lives, national and personal, become accessible to others, and often to the world at large. Whether this is good, bad or indifferent isn't clear, but it is happening.Anyone who knows what he's doing can, for example, gather huge amounts of information on me or you without leaving his computer. Trucking companies follow their trucks precisely by means of Global Positioning System receivers and satellite uplinks. It gets constantly easier to know things about other people and places.
The advent of commercial satellites with good resolution means that just about any part of any country can be watched by just about anyone with the money to pay for satellite photos.A cause for paranoia? It's hard to see why. The imagery companies are no more nefarious than Safeway. They want to make a nickel by helping governments improve agriculture. Why would you care if an urban planner had a photo showing you and your dog in the back yard?
And yet it's, well, interesting to know that no matter how deep you are in the back country of Wyoming, you're never invisible unless you are under something.



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