- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

DENVER (AP) From an orbit 280 miles above Earth, a new satellite produces images clear enough to distinguish an SUV from a pickup, the lines on a tennis court and the shadows of a foursome on a golf course.
Mapmakers, archaeologists and cities struggling with urban sprawl are eager to obtain the supersharp pictures from Quickbird, which recently began snapping the most detailed satellite images ever available to the public.
"We're one of the very first people in line," said Jerry Holden, a remote-sensing manager at the conservation group Ducks Unlimited, which hopes to use Quickbird images to monitor wetlands. "There are things like vegetation studies where you need the best resolution you can get."
Quickbird's cameras can pick up objects as small as 2 feet. The next-best satellite available to the public, the Ikonos satellite launched in 1999 by Denver-based Space Imaging Inc., has a resolution of closer to 3 feet.
Other nations, notably Israel and Russia, have high-powered satellites, too, but none as sharp as Ikonos or Quickbird. The U.S. military satellites do produce sharper images, but those are off-limits to the public.
Quickbird was launched in October by Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe after a predecessor failed to reach orbit a year earlier.
It began producing images in February and selling them through resellers in March. Direct sales to the public will begin by midyear.
Early images can distinguish the lanes of a swimming pool, school buses around the Washington monument, seams in the tarmac at Washington's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and a traffic jam outside the Colisseum in Rome.
More importantly, experts say, the satellite can pick up details of coral reefs, environmental damage and the slow creep of urban growth.
"There are so many cities worldwide that do not have good maps at all," said Farouk El-Baz, the director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. "Things develop so drastically that the government cannot even follow the changes or even know about them."
Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder hopes to use Quickbird to distinguish how crevasses in the Antarctic ice shelf fluctuate over time.
"There are some sort of collapse pits that you could actually see," Mr. Scambos said. "There are several areas where it might be useful."
Quickbird's imaging mechanism works much like a photocopier, sweeping its lens across the terrain below.
The images are about 10 miles by 10 miles in size and can cost anywhere from $30 to more than $185 per square kilometer for high-quality pictures. Several can be stitched together to form much larger mosaics of terrain.
Ikonos imagery is cheaper, at about $18 for the lowest-priced picture. And Space Imaging has an archive of about 500,000 images that sell for $7 per square kilometer, though images are not as sharp.
Quickbird will struggle with the same problems Ikonos faced, including weather.
"You can always try to make a computer faster but you just can't compensate for the Earth being 60 percent covered in cloud," Space Imaging spokesman Gary Napier said.
It remains to be seen how sharp an image the market will bear, or customers will need. Images are expensive, as is the storage of enormous imaging files on computers.
Furthermore, licenses with the government require Quickbird and the future Ikonos satellites to hold images for 24 hours before selling them.
Like other U.S. companies, the satellite operators may not sell to countries that sponsor terrorism or rogue states, as well as many other banned groups.
The U.S. government may also tell Quickbird or Ikonos operators to shutter their satellites completely in the name of national security. So far, the government has not invoked this clause, even after September 11.
Ann Florini, a space policy expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doubts the satellites will be of much use to terrorists.
"They would have to have such a technological infrastructure, such a system for data analysis, not to mention the military capability to put the information to use," she said. "The satellites themselves are really a trivial part of the equation."


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