The new spy-quality images won’t just be cheaper and more convenient than the old ones. “With the increase in spatial details comes the ability to not only map geological features, but to ask questions that you could not answer with lower-resolution imagery,” says geologist John Amos, an analyst with Advanced Resources International, a GIS firm in Fairfax, Va.
Lately, Amos has been spending lots of time helping clients identify “sweet spots” in beds of sandstone suspected of harboring natural gas. Most of the gas is locked in low-permeability sandstone. The sweet spots have higher permeability, making it easier to get the gas out. Amos’ geologically trained eyes can garner subtle hints from satellite imagery about where those spots might be. When the higher-resolution imagery becomes available, he’ll be able to zoom in on candidate sweet spots first pegged during analysis with the lower-resolution imagery. And that could make it easier to rule out the pseudo-sweet spots that would soak up money while producing no gas.
Still, Amos expects that the technophilic urge of clients for the hottest new gadget will be something to guard against. The irony of high-resolution imagery, he explains, is that “you can actually lose the forest for the trees.” These images offer more detail, but over much less area than low-resolution images. “There will always be a value in looking at large enough areas at low resolution so that the brain doesn’t get swamped with details,” Amos says.
And though the high-resolution data could help people like Amos, who spend their time looking at huge sweeps of ocean and sparsely developed countryside, it might be even more helpful to those concentrating on urban areas. One of the first to log on to the Terraserver was Eli Naor, an architect with VBN Associates in Oakland, Calif., designing a roadway and bridge connecting a freeway to the Oakland Airport. Says Naor: “I was able to locate the Bay on a graphic map of the world and then through a series of enlargements I was able to zoom in on the Oakland Airport at a high degree of magnification, find the roadway in question, and acquire the image.” He says overhead perspectives are good for business because they help him do his design work as well as show it in presentations. Naor says he’s also excited about helping his kids use the newly available satellite imagery for school projects.
The image of an architect-dad helping his kids do their schoolwork represents the soft and fuzzy side of the newly available pictures. But the prospect of North Korea aiming nuclear missiles is a different matter. It’s that kind of scenario that has made the high-resolution imagery business a topic of debate among Washington lawmakers and regulators. And indeed, the new satellites could even erode personal privacy. If you suspected your neighbors were building a swimming pool on the other side of a high fence, you might be able to confirm your hunch with some satellite data (though at 1-meter resolution, would-be Peeping Toms are bound to be disappointed by the poor detail of the view from space).
A newly formed Remote Sensing Interagency Working Group hopes to steer the emerging industry in a direction compatible with national interests. The group, including representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Defense and State, has been developing guidelines for incorporating safeguards into the licenses for selling high-resolution satellite imagery. Satellite operators must keep a log of all pictures their satellites take. They must close their cameras’ shutters when the government deems that dissemination of high-resolution satellite imagery could threaten security. There are also idiosyncratic limitations, most notably the prohibition of any U.S. company gathering imagery over Israeli territory that is finer than imagery available from non-U.S. companies; Space Imaging, for example, will not be able to sell 1-meter pictures of Israeli territory from its yet-to-be-launched IKONOS-1 satellite until some other country offers the same product. (This was a concession to Israel, whose lobbyists, some say, pushed for it on security grounds.) And a 1997 article in the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was preparing the ultimate defense: anti-satellite weapons capable of destroying the imagery satellites.
Where the balance of good and evil wrought by the new view will fall depends on whether the information increases or decreases security in the world. Without question, many of the first customers in the new market will be national governments. “Space imagery is going to be part of the intelligence trade for the other 190 countries that haven’t had access to it,” says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., where he monitors the intelligence community. “By helping countries know what is going on around them, this could be a tool for the countries of the world in either planning security-threatening actions or security-stabilizing actions,” says Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute. “Here is information that heretofore has not been available and can be used for both positive and negative purposes.”
In one of the more alarming scenarios, ill-meaning, technology-savvy terrorists or governments might try to couple high-resolution satellite imagery with the already commercial Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS is a multi-satellite system by which the position of anyone or anything can be determined with an accuracy of tens of feet in the case of commercial uses and better in the case of military ones. “The real concern,” says the Space Policy Institute’s Williamson, “is that with this high-resolution data and a couple of GPS receivers, you can do very good targeting.”