Before figuring out the consequences of this situation, it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at how we got into it. Anybody who watches the weather on TV knows that low-resolution satellite imagery has been publicly available for many years. NASA started peddling low-resolution pictures from the Landsat program as early as the 1970s. Since then, selling low-to-moderate-resolution data (down to the 10-meter range) has become a globally competitive industry, with government-run or -assisted agencies from the United States, France, India, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada all in the game.
But that kind of imagery is a very different proposition from the kind of high-resolution imagery that is about to flood the market. And it took a couple of recent developments to get the high-resolution business off the ground, as it were. For one thing, spacecraft and launches got a whole lot cheaper. “It’s now possible to get into the business for $20 million to $50 million,” says Ray Williamson, a colleague of Logsdon’s at the Space Policy Institute. The Russians can put your goods into space at rock-bottom prices from their Baikanur launching facility in Kazakhstan. China also provides budget launch services.
The market for satellite imagery also has been growing and diversifying over the past few decades. Many early users were shallow-pocketed scientists tracking large-scale phenomena such as weather, forest decline, ocean conditions and global warming. But that kind of market couldn’t support a whole private-sector industry, so governments provided big-time subsidies to keep the satellites in orbit. In the meantime, though, a large new commercial sector emerged: the Geographic Information Services (GIS) industry.
GIS companies work primarily with corporate customers, offering them overhead data relevant to their businesses. The walls of GIS companies are papered with satellite images from Landsat, France’s Spot Image, Canada’s RADARSAT (which gathers remote sensing data using high-resolution radar rather than optical technology) and other providers. Analysts combine these images with geographic information, such as jurisdictional boundary maps, agricultural resources and demographic data. The growth of GIS provided a basis for “incorporating all kinds of interesting information into satellite images,” says Williamson. With these value-added service providers now in place, high-resolution spy-quality images now have a sizable market in waiting.
As soon as the conditions were right, people like John Hoffman were ready to step forward. In fact, high-resolution imagery was part of Hoffman’s planning from the time he founded Aerial Images in Raleigh, N.C., in 1988. But it wasn’t until after the Cold War and his adventures in Moscow that he was ready to get into orbit. By May 1996, a Russian Cosmos spacecraft bearing a SPIN-2 satellite with a high-resolution camera earmarked for his joint venture was perched atop a Soyuz B rocket at the Baikanur site.
These Russian “birds,” as satellites are known in the trade, carry sophisticated optical systems but they aren’t up-to-date in every respect. Most of Hoffman’s competitors beam images back to earth via telemetry systems. But the Russian SPIN-2s carry film that must be physically retrieved from a canister that falls back to earth. The film is processed in Russia, then sent to the United States, where precision scanners convert the photographs into digital images. Once digitized, the imagery data can make it onto disks, databases for GIS providers, the Internet and the rest of the digital world.