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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Satellite Can Find Needle in Haystack

DENVER -- From an orbit 450 kilometers above Earth, a new satellite produces images clear enough to distinguish an SUV from a pickup, the lines on a tennis court and the shadows of a foursome on a golf course.

Mapmakers, archaeologists and cities struggling with urban sprawl are eager to obtain the super-sharp pictures from Quickbird, which recently began snapping the most detailed satellite images ever available to the public.

"We're one of the very first people in line," said Jerry Holden, a remote-sensing manager at the conservation group Ducks Unlimited, which hopes to use Quickbird images to monitor wetlands. "There are things like vegetation studies where you need the best resolution you can get."

Quickbird's cameras can pick up objects smaller than 1 meter. The next-best satellite available to the public, the Ikonos satellite launched in 1999 by Denver-based Space Imaging Inc., has a resolution of closer to 1 meter.

Israel and Russia also have high-powered satellites, but none as sharp as the U.S. civilian Ikonos or Quickbird's new cameras. U.S. military satellites do produce sharper images, but those are off-limits to the public.

Quickbird was launched in October by Longmont-based DigitalGlobe after a predecessor failed to reach orbit a year earlier.

It began producing images in February and selling them through resellers in March. Direct sales to the public will begin by midyear.

Early images from the new satellite can distinguish the lanes of a swimming pool, school buses around the Washington monument, seams in the tarmac at Washington's Reagan National Airport and a traffic jam outside the Coliseum in Rome.

More importantly, experts say, the satellite can pick up details of coral reefs, environmental damage and the slow creep of urban growth.

"There are so many cities worldwide that do not have good maps at all," said Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. "Things develop so drastically that the government cannot even follow the changes or even know about them."

Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder hopes to use Quickbird to distinguish how crevasses in the Antarctic ice shelf fluctuate over time.

"There are some sort of collapse pits that you could actually see," Scambos said. "There are several areas where it might be useful."

Quickbird's imaging mechanism works much like a photocopier, sweeping its lens across the terrain below.

The images are about 16 kilometers by 16 kilometers in size and can cost anywhere from $30 to more than $185 per square kilometer for high-quality pictures. Several can be stitched together to form much larger mosaics of terrain.

Ikonos imagery is cheaper, at about $18 for the cheapest picture. And Space Imaging has an archive of about 500,000 images that sell for $7 per square kilometer, though images are not as sharp.

The camera technology in Quickbird and Ikonos is almost identical.

But because DigitalGlobe was able to get a U.S. government license to produce the clearer images, it launched Quickbird into a lower orbit than Ikonos to pick up better detail.

Space Imaging now has a high-resolution license as well, and it plans to up the ante in 2005 with a satellite whose resolution will be about 45 centimeters, slightly better than Quickbird's. DigitalGlobe has said it plans to launch another satellite capable of taking sharper pictures as well.

Experts say the Quickbird's capabilities have been in military hands for as long as 15 years. It is believed U.S. spy satellites can now detect objects as small as 13 centimeters in size.

Quickbird will struggle with the same problems Ikonos faced, including weather.

"You can always try to make a computer faster, but you just can't compensate for the Earth being 60 percent covered in cloud," Space Imaging spokesman Gary Napier said.

It remains to be seen how sharp an image the market will bear, or customers will need. Images are expensive, as is the storage of enormous imaging files in computers.

Furthermore, licenses with the government require Quickbird and the future Ikonos satellites to hold images for 24 hours before selling them.

"I'm being a little patient and letting the market tell us where we want to go," said Herb Satterlee, Quickbird's president and chief executive.

That may wind up working in the satellite companies' favor.

Concerns have been raised over how another commercial satellite might threaten national security.

Like other U.S. companies, the satellite operators may not sell to countries that sponsor terrorism or rogue states, and many other banned groups.

The U.S. government may also tell Quickbird or Ikonos operators to shutter their satellites completely in the name of national security. So far, the government has not invoked this clause, even after Sept. 11.

Ann Florini, a space policy expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doubts the satellites will be of much use to terrorists.

"They would have to have such a technological infrastructure, such a system for data analysis, not to mention the military capability to put the information to use," she said.

"The satellites themselves are really a trivial part of the equation."