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Until recently, satellite imagery meant military intelligence. Satellite
imagery used by the military and the intelligence community for more
than four decades, was highly classified. It was seen only by skilled
interpreters in windowless, secure buildings before going up the chain
of command to the upper echelons of the federal government who have
the “need to know.” Now, commercial satellite imagery is seen on a
regular basis, even on the news.
The imagery shown on the news is not from spy satellites, since those
systems are classified; this satellite imagery is taken from high-
resolution commercial picture-taking satellites. Governments are also
becoming a voracious user of this technology. The National Geospatial-
Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the key player for the acquisition of
commercial imagery for DoD and the integration of this technology into
the way they do business. While unclassified commercial satellite
imagery provides great value, the DoD’s use of imagery also
strengthens the relationship between industry and the Pentagon. The
upshot is that NGA has spent, and will be spending, serious money on
contracts with the two key players in the commercial satellite imagery
industry: DigitalGlobe, and Space Imaging.
President Clinton’s 1994 Presidential Decision Directive 23 loosened
controls over the sophisticated remote sensing technologies, which until
then were controlled entirely by the U.S. government. Congressional
support and the Clinton White House directive provided a favorable
regulatory environment for the migration of this technology from the
world of intelligence to the world of commerce. The high-resolution
commercial satellite imagery industry was essentially born at the
moment Clinton issued the new policy. In the spring of 2003 the White
House released the U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy.
This policy updated and replaced the one signed by Clinton in 1994.
It ordered all federal government agencies to utilize commercial satellite
imagery to the maximum extent possible. It even said that it is in the
national interest to have a strong U.S. commercial remote sensing
DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird satellite was launched in October 2001.
QuickBird provides the highest resolution commercial satellite imagery
currently available. But the granddaddy of the commercial imaging
satellites is IKONOS, launched by Space Imaging in September 1999.
Moving over the ground at approximately seven kilometers per second,
423 miles above the earth, IKONOS collects data at a rate of over
2,000 square kilometers per minute. It also collects both black-and-white
and multispectral imagery. IKONOS makes nearly 15 98-minute journeys
around the globe each day. IKONOS is also an agile satellite and can
shoot at an angle—the satellite can be tilted 26 degrees off axis.
Imagery from DigitalGlobe and Space Imaging is used to fulfill a
significant portion of their imagery-mapping mission. NGA has
established high-speed digital communications lines with DigitalGlobe
and Space Imaging to improve the speed of delivery of satellite
imagery. Both imaging companies collect thousands of square kilometers
of imagery each day. With more than 188 million square kilometers of
imagery captured by IKONOS alone, their constellation of satellite sensors
has produced the industry’s most comprehensive archive.
Even the purchasing of commercial satellite imagery is almost as easy as
buying a book at Amazon.com. You can go to our their website, browse
and do most of your shopping upfront, and then call their customer service
people to make your purchases.
Now, both NGA and the commercial satellite industry are looking to the
future and what the next generation of commercial satellites will be capable
of providing. DigitalGlobe is working with industry leaders to substantially
improve resolution and collection capacity, and to revisit capabilities with
the next generation system, called the WorldView Imaging system. It’s
expected that the next generation satellite will be capable of snapping
images 1- to 2-feet across, which is sharp enough to distinguish a human
being from other objects.
Homeland security is another area where commercial satellite imagery can
be a great asset. Remote sensing and GIS is becoming an increasingly
important tool to protect the United States’ air, water, borders, shorelines,
infrastructure, institutions and people. High-resolution imagery, however,
may find its most powerful application in preparing first responders in case
of attack, thereby improving response speed and quality, reducing casualties
and economic dislocations, and improving chances of a quick recovery. If
geospatial information about critical transportation assets is kept up-to-date,
these same datasets can provide detailed routing and terrain information for
It appears that the sky, or rather, outer space, is the limit for the commercial
satellite imagery industry.