Space: Brought To You In Revealing Color


October 26,2008:  The U.S. NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) is quite happy with its $237 million investment in the half billion dollar, two ton GeoEye 1 photo satellite. While this is a newly launched commercial bird, one of its biggest customers is the NGA (which buys over $10 million worth of images a month). The other big customer is Google, which uses the GeoEye images for Google Maps (the satellite has the Google logo on it.)

What makes GeoEye so important is that it takes color pictures at an ideal resolution (41 centimeters, 16.2 inches) for most military, and many civilian, uses. While the military has classified photo satellites with ten times better resolution (or so it's said, exact resolution of current KeyHole birds is classified), the 41 centimeters is good for most military applications. This the generals know because they can't help but notice how popular Google Maps is with the troops who are actually planning operations. Rather than go through the hassle, and wait, of getting high rez classified stuff, Google Maps is good enough. Thus most of the images the Department of Defense is guying from GeoEye will be unclassified, or of low classification, so the troops, and American allies, can more easily get it.

Color is a big deal as well. In the past, the emphasis was on higher resolution, and color imagery was sacrificed. But users have made it clear that they put higher emphasis on color (which makes many images much more useful) than resolution. The military has also found high resolution images for Google to be a boon for military intelligence. That's because thousands of military buffs around the world love to scour Google Maps images of places like China, North Korea and Iran, and find interesting military things those secretive countries would rather stay secret. The NGA and CIA won't say one way or the other, but it would appear that this bit of military "crowd sourcing" (many people cooperating via the web to get something done) has found things that the experts missed.

The NGA contributed nearly half the money for building GeoEye 1 in order to get dibs on use of the satellite in the event of a national emergency. A similar deal is in the works for GeoEye 2, an even higher resolution satellite that creates color photos, which will be launched in two years. The U.S. Congress wants deals like this  to become more common, and has turned down military, CIA and NGA requests for several military owned GeoEye type satellites. Congress  insists that it's cheaper and more practical for the military and spies to get most of their satellite photos from commercial birds. The military wants to own all their photo satellites, but Congress points out that in wartime, the Pentagon can take control of the GeoEye birds for the duration. Since Congress makes the rules and controls the money (and the NGA just screwed up and lost $10 billion designing a new generation of high end spy satellites), GeoEye is the way to go, for the moment.

Thus the strategy will be using more unclassified satellites for supplying military customers, and reserving the super high resolution (and very expensive, as in several billion bucks each) KeyHole type birds for specialized needs.



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