U.S. buys rights to satellite photos

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U.S. buys rights to satellite photos

Thornton firm gets exclusive contract for use in war effort

By Janet Forgrieve, News Staff Writer

A Thornton-based satellite imagery company is selling pictures of the war zone to Uncle Sam. The federal government signed an exclusive deal last week with 7-year-old Space Imaging Inc. for all images in a certain area taken by the company's Ikonos satellite.

It's likely that the area covered includes Afghanistan, but the government isn't revealing the extent of the locations covered by the deal.

"We're paying for the commercial satellite imagery in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. We're not being specific about what countries that covers," said Dave Burpee, spokesman for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

Other American companies supply commercial satellite images, but the Ikonos satellite, a technology pioneered by Lockheed Martin Corp., provides the best quality, said Space Imaging spokesman Mark Brender.

"The satellite has a camera on board that can look down on Earth and see objects as small as one meter square," Brender said.

The agency is a combat support agency that provides services to the Department of Defense as well as the intelligence community, Burpee said.

Neither the agency nor Space Imaging disclosed the value of the contract, which is renewable monthly. Currently, the Defense Department is paying for the rights to the pictures. There would be additional charges to actually buy the pictures, Burpee said.

"It's a contract with a supplier, so we're reluctant to say anything because it reveals pricing information they may see as proprietary," Burpee said. Payment for commercial photos often comes out of the agency's classified budget, he said.

Until the Defense Department locked up the rights to the photos, media outlets had been paying about $500 per picture.

Space Imaging launched the 1,600-pound satellite in September 1999 from Vandenburg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles, Brender said. The company began selling pictures from the satellite in January 2000.

The Ikonos satellite hovers 423 miles out in space and travels around the Earth at a speed of four miles per second. It crosses over the North Pole, the South Pole and back to the North Pole again in 98 minutes.

Because of the close details the technology allows, customers use the photos for mapping, urban planning and zoning, oil and gas exploration, insurance and risk management and disaster assessment, Brender said.

Space Imaging often sells photos to media outlets.

Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the company made its photos of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon available for free on its Web site.

It's not unusual for the agency to use commercial satellite images to augment the even more technologically advanced government satellite capability. The company and the agency have a longstanding relationship, Brender said.

"It's good for us because it's unclassified, we can share it with coalition partners, international aid agencies and we can also use it for low-priority items, which frees up the national means for higher priorities," Burpee said.

But some have criticized the deal as a way to keep the Ikonos images from the public.

"At the moment, we're essentially dependent on the Pentagon as a sole source for battle information and damage assessment," said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy analyst and intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. "This commercial imagery would provide one independent channel for assessing the conduct of the war."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 16, 2001

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