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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK


Satellite 'spy pictures' for sale

The fine detail of Washington DC seen from space (Photo: Space Imaging)

By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington

The first image has been released from a company offering to sell high-resolution satellite pictures of any place on the planet.

John Copple: "We believe there is a significant niche for digital visual information"
It shows a Washington DC right down to a resolution of one metre.

When the images go on sale on 1 January 2000, it will be the first time anyone outside the military will have been able to buy such detailed satellite photographs.

The satellite which took the picture is called Ikonos and was launched on 24 September 1999. The company behind the initiative is Space Imaging and they have invested $750 million dollars in the scheme.

John Copple, Space Imaging's CEO, told BBC News Online that any fears over "Big Brother" invasions of privacy are unwarranted: "We don't believe it's a concern because our satellite only passes over a point on the Earth once a day, so it only occurs infrequently.

[ image: The Washington Monument's shadow points at the car park (Photo: Space Imaging)]
The Washington Monument's shadow points at the car park (Photo: Space Imaging)
"There are, I believe, over 300,000 video cameras in England and so there are much more cost-effective ways of monitoring than with our satellite."

Although the resolution of military spy satellites is not officially disclosed, it is believed to be slightly higher than that of Ikonos. But Mr Copple thinks it would not be commercially viable to produce images more detailed than one metre resolution.

Ikonos images which have not been processed and enhanced will cost about $30 per square mile. The best quality images will be charged at about $500 per square mile.

Ikonos' camera can capture one-metre resolution images and four-colour images at four-metre resolution, but the two can be combined.

[ image: Simulated one-metre image of the Imperial Palace, Vienna, Austria]
Simulated one-metre image of the Imperial Palace, Vienna, Austria

The satellite orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes at a height of 680 kilometres (425 miles). It can store about 100 images in its memory, so it does not need to be in view of a ground receiving station all the time.

Mr Copple said Ikonos is expected to remain in service for about seven years. Compared to photography from aircraft, he admits that: "the upfront investment is significant, but the price per unit is much lower because you can cover much larger areas."

Who will buy the images remains to be seen, but Mr Copple expects orders from everyone from governments planning disaster relief operations to people wanting photos of their town. Other customers could be farmers, oil companies and telecommunications companies.

Launch photo by Russ Underwood, Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space.

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