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Launching satellites of any kind isn’t a business for the queasy; failure is often part of the game. The first SPIN-2 had equipment trouble and never made it into orbit. But Hoffman has a strong stomach, and the second try, in 1997, succeeded, providing the images for the Terraserver, offering the general public its first taste of what only intelligence types used to be able to see.

That taste soon will be followed by a veritable banquet of high-resolution images, as Hoffman’s competitors get into the business (see sidebar: “The Image Makers”). In the next months and years several companies, including Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., and Earth Watch of Longmont, Colo., expect to launch high-resolution imagery satellites. Some will offer resolution slightly finer than 1 meter-better than Hoffman’s SPIN-2 birds can now produce. And although that’s getting closer to the capabilities of the actual spy satellites, the real spooks say they still have the sharpest-sighted birds in the sky. “We will remain a step ahead of commercial capability,” says Rick Oborn, spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office, whose satellites these days can reportedly achieve a resolution of 10 centimeters.

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