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  • For Their Eyes Only

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2001
Sally B. Patterson

The US Defense Department has gobbled up all of the material on Afghanistan from the only commercial satellite company that can currently provide 1-m-resolution images.

A contract with Space Imaging Inc. of Thornton, Colo., gives the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) – a Defense Department branch – exclusive rights to all of the time that the company's satellite Ikonos spends in orbit over Afghanistan and another (undisclosed) country, and to all of the images it produces there. The initial agreement covered the period from Oct. 7 through Nov. 5 and included the option to renew on a monthly basis; it was renewed through Dec. 5.

Unlike many exclusive contracts that expire, allowing subsequent release of the material, this agreement monopolizes the images in perpetuity. The information has not been classified -- it has just been bought out of circulation.

What's in it for the company is $20 per square kilometer of imaging, in minimum orders of 10,000 sq km, plus a hefty $1.9 million per month for exclusive access. It was "a sound business decision," Space Imaging spokesman Gary Napier said, "as well as an opportunity to fulfill a need for our country."

Napier acknowledged that First Amendment issues have been raised in the press but asserted that the contract is not a media blackout. For example, he pointed out that images of Kandahar airport were recently made available. He added that there is discussion of providing images of the refugee camps but that the Department of Defense must concur with any releases.

The government has technology of its own – some built by Lockheed Martin and some in the works from Boeing – which Rick Osborn at the National Reconnaissance Office says is "a lot better" than that available commercially. The particulars are classified, but he said, "We'd water your eyes."

Why, then, does the government need the commercial images? "For assured access," DoD spokesman Lt. Col. Ken McClellan said, and to get the satellite pointed where we want it pointed. Also, it keeps the Afghan Taliban regime from turning the images to their own uses, because whatever CNN or other news organizations put up has the potential to fall into the hands of the enemy. "It kills me that a lot of people in the media thought it was about them," he commented.

On Oct. 18, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., launched a competitive satellite – QuickBird – that has the capability for 61-cm resolution. Images should become available early next year.

Has DigitalGlobe been approached by the government? NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears said it has not, to her knowledge, but added that "NIMA has always been supportive of the commercial satellite industry and has had monies in the classified budget to buy imagery. This is nothing new."

What is new is the exclusivity. "Well," she said, "because of the events of Sept. 11, a lot of things have changed."

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