Credit Card Spy Satellite
Pictures Available Soon
Worldwide High-Resolution Images As Small As 10 Feet
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the launching of the world's first commercial spy-like satellite, just about anybody with a credit card may soon enjoy an eye in the sky.
``EarlyBird 1'' was designed to pick out features on the ground as small as three meters (10 feet) across from its orbit 473 km (295 miles) above the earth.
It was successfully launched Wednesday atop a Russian rocket by its builder, EarthWatch Inc., of Longmont, Colo.
The launching, from a military base in eastern Russia, ended the monopoly of the world's most advanced military and intelligence services on gathering high-resolution pictures from space.
``The people of the world will soon have easy and inexpensive access to the most refined representation of our planet ever assembled,'' Donovan Hicks, EarthWatch's president, said in a statement.
Currently, the sharpest such commercially available imagery captures features no smaller than 10 meters (33 feet). Such pictures are sold by Spot Images of Toulouse, France, as well as by companies in Russia and the United States.
After a brief calibration and commissioning period, the EarlyBird 1 satellite will begin beaming back images with three-meter ``resolution'' that can be purchased, among other ways, through the Internet by any approved customer.
EarthWatch said Thursday that customers had already begun commissioning images at its web site,, with a minimum charge of $300.
Prices of black-and-white pictures range from $2.75 to $7.25 per square km (0.4 square miles), depending on whether they come from the company's archives or are collected at a specified time and date, Bob Wientzen, a company spokesman said.
Color imagery is also available, although it is less sharp and more expensive. ``Typically, we can supply specially ordered imagery within a few days,'' Wientzen said.
The pictures may be used in a wide range of applications, including town planning, mapmaking, disaster relief, mining and giving the media and the public the chance to scrutinize environmental and military crises.
With three-meter capabilities, cars can be distinguished from trucks, for example. In imagery taken at 10-meter resolution, neither cars nor trucks can be identified.
EarthWatch, Spot and firms in India, Israel, Russia and China plan to launch next-generation satellites in coming years capable of distinguishing ground objects with a diameter just below one meter (39.37 inches).
With such ``submeter'' resolution, ``you could see a blanket on the beach but not the person on it,'' Wientzen said in a telephone interview. He said EarthWatch planned to launch such a system called QuickBird in 1999.
The Clinton administration opened the door for U.S. companies to enter the so-called high-resolution ``remote sensing'' field in 1994, bowing to industry arguments that foreign rivals would otherwise have a free hand.
But the federal government retains the right switch off the commercial sensors in times of war or international tension. In addition, it bans U.S.-licensed satellite operators from selling images to the governments of Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq or any of their suspected agents.
The launch of EarlyBird 1 provided a vivid reminder that the Cold War is over. It was the first commercial launch from the Svobodny Cosmodrome, Russia's newest commercial launch site.
The satellite was fired into space Wednesday at 8:33 a.m. EST (1333 GMT), atop a former intercontinental ballistic missile known as START-1, for the arms control treaty that made the missile obsolete.

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