Digital Globe Featured in USA Today
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Spy satellites' offspring deliver hot stuff: Earth pics from space
Updated 7/1/2010 11:23 AM
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Sometimes the future happens without much notice.
Where the images of Earth viewed from the moon evoked the awakening environmentalism of the 1970s, satellite images, of every disaster or news flash, now define our era, says space historian Margaret Weitekamp of the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "We have expectations of connection and information that didn't exist a decade ago because of this," Weitekamp says.
And with two dueling U.S. space firms, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., boasting a newly launched bird, and its rival, GeoEye of Dulles, Va., planning its next one, our reliance on space images seems likely to only increase.
"It is a new kind of space race," says DigitalGlobe CEO Jill Smith. "We are looking at ways to make space images as ubiquitous as possible."
So far, so good. From the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to pirates off the coast of Somalia to a closeted harbor of North Korea, once-impossible views are now daily news. With wars being fought and crises from volcanoes to earthquakes to oil spills adding to increasing reliance on space views by government planners and private developers, DigitalGlobe is forecasting a 27.6% gain in revenue, to $360 million this year. GeoEye forecasts an 18% increase, up to $320 million.
"We are hiring like crazy," says GeoEye CEO Matthew O'Connell. "This is a great time to be in the space-imaging business."
Swords into plowshares
Direct descendants of U.S. spy satellites, private firms' birds follow orbits that travel from pole to pole every hour and a half, allowing them to pass over every spot on Earth once every three days. Essentially, they are telescopes pointed at Earth from space, swinging their view from side to side to take images requested by customers. The newest private satellite, DigitalGlobe's WorldView-2, flies at an altitude of 480 miles and sells images with a resolution no smaller than a half-meter (about 19.5 inches), a legal limit imposed by the federal government. At that resolution, a lawn chair would be visible from 480 miles up.
Remarkably, the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, was officially a secret until 1992. Facing the end of the Cold War and seeing global positioning satellites about to blossom into today's dashboard standard equipment, federal officials began opening the once-secret world of spy satellite images to private firms, hoping to see a swords-into-plowshares transition.
The Bush administration accelerated the growth in 2002, when then-CIA chief George Tenet wrote that the intelligence community wants to use U.S. commercial space imagery "to the greatest extent possible." The Obama administration has continued the trend; DigitalGlobe reported that 80% of its revenue was defense-related. The figure was 67% for GlobalEye in the first quarter of 2010.
"Government is growing and commercial use is growing," O'Connell says. "Especially now, with the focus in government and business becoming using the resources we have in a smarter ways, geospatial information looks more appealing to more people."
Plus, there's Google Earth and Google Maps, O'Connell acknowledges, for spreading the word. GeoEye slapped the Web advertising giant's logo on its last satellite launch and has a deal to provide space images for the company's products. Some controversy has attended the interest; Bahrain's rulers blocked Google Earth images from its citizens, and the head of India's Space Research Organization called them a security threat. Besides the image resolution limit, the federal government has effectively prevented views of Iraq or Afghanistan from emerging with block purchases of images. DigitalGlobe images of Baghdad, for example, appear pixilated on Google Earth.
"Like guns and fire, commercial space surveillance can be used for good or evil," says William Burrows, author of Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security. Closer to home, "commercial surveillance will make invasion of privacy — intrusion — relatively easy. It would provide anyone with something to sell an extremely valuable tool," he says. "Be sure to wear a towel when you sunbathe in the backyard."
Smith counters such concerns by noting that space imaging firms face more legal restriction, such as the image resolution limit and other federal controls on the satellites, than airplane imaging services, which provide many of the close-up overhead shots seen in places such as Google Maps. "Our customers are interested in real-estate-sized questions," she says.
Besides, the resolution quality just isn't sharp enough for Enemy of the State style high jinks, O'Connell says. "We can show you home plate, but we can't tell you who is batting."