Space-based remote sensing of the Earth used to be the sole domain of the U.S. government. Imagery of our planet taken by intelligence satellites was highly classified, and relatively few people had access to the imagery. That began to change in the mid 80’s and early 90’s when other countries began launching very capable Earth-imaging satellites and making that imagery available for sale. To stay competitive, the U.S. government opened the door for American companies to build and launch even better commercial imaging satellites, building on the heritage of three decades of work by the intelligence community. Here’s a brief overview of satellite imagery, then and now, and the policies that made all this possible.
The December 1900 issue of Ladies' Home Journal predicted that within a century, "Flying machines will carry powerful telescopes that beam back to Earth photographs as distinct and large as if taken from across the street."
After the launch of Sputnik I, the United States initiated a reconnaissance satellite program called Corona. Authorized by President Eisenhower in 1958, Corona was jointly managed by the CIA and the U.S. Air Force.
In 1960, the U.S. launched the first spy satellite. Groundbreaking images of Soviet territories were collected – but not declassified until 1995. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson said, "If nothing else had come out of [the U.S. space program] except the knowledge that we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost."
The U.S. government launched its first commercial satellite program, the ERTS-1 (Earth Resources Technology Satellite), which was later renamed Landsat. For the first time, satellite imagery became available for non-military use, but the ground resolution was very coarse.
The first SPOT satellite, launched by France in 1986, famously collected an image of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and shared it with the world just ten days later, even as the U.S.S.R. was unwilling to release information about the meltdown.
Also in 1986, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the "Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space” that allowed imaging satellites to overfly any nation on Earth as long as the imagery is made available to the sensed state “on a non-discriminatory basis and on reasonable cost terms."
In 1988, the Indian Space Research Organization launched its first imaging satellite.
National Space Policy Directive 5, signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1992, reiterated the importance of the Landsat program. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act said, "Development of the commercial space remote sensing industry in the United States and promoting the broad use of remote sensing data" must be balanced against "preserving the national security of the United States."
Presidential Decision Directive 23 (PDD-23), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, laid the foundation for U.S. companies to launch competitive, high-resolution satellites.
In 2002, the director of the CIA issued a memorandum that said, "It is the policy of the intelligence community to use U.S. commercial space imagery to the greatest extent possible."
In 2003, President George W. Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 27, which said that the "fundamental goal of U.S. commercial remote sensing policy is to advance and protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by maintaining the nation’s leadership in remote sensing space activities."
In 2009, the director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense issued a press release saying they have put together a plan "to modernize the nation's aging satellite-imagery architecture by prudently evolving government-owned satellite designs and enhancing use of U.S. commercial providers." President Obama approved the plan.
Today, GeoEye operates a constellation of high-resolution Earth-imaging satellites that collects millions of square kilometers of map-accurate imagery every month.
Virginia-based GeoEye launched OrbView-2, a low-resolution satellite, which captures broad-area color imagery of land and ocean surfaces for scientific research, agricultural use and ocean monitoring. Still operational today, OrbView-2 collects imagery of the Earth with a ground resolution of one kilometer.
GeoEye launched IKONOS, the world's first high-resolution, commercial Earth-imaging satellite. The IKONOS satellite has a ground resolution of .82-meters or about 32 inches. The name IKONOS was inspired by the Greek word meaning "image." It, too, is still in operation today. In November of 1999, GeoEye released the first high-resolution commercial satellite image of Washington D.C.
GeoEye launched the OrbView-3 high-resolution imaging satellite.
GeoEye launched GeoEye-1, the most advanced commercial, high-resolution, color Earth-imaging satellite to date. GeoEye-1 collects the highest resolution imagery available from any commercial satellite – .41 meters or 16-inch ground resolution. From an orbit 423 miles in space, GeoEye-1 can discern an object on the ground the size of home plate on a baseball field and can map an object that size to within 16 feet of its true location on the surface of the Earth. However, the U.S. government currently restricts public distribution of GeoEye-1 images to commercial markets to half-meter ground resolution. Launched in September 2008 from Vandenberg AFB, California, the 4300-pound GeoEye-1 satellite collects imagery that is unsurpassed in detail and accuracy. Anyone can see GeoEye-1 imagery in Google Earth or Google Maps.
› Watch the launch!
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded a combined $7.3 billion in two 10-year contracts with two commercial satellite imaging companies under the EnhancedView program. GeoEye received a contract worth up to $3.8 billion under this program, which makes its commercial imagery an integral part of the U.S. national imagery architecture. This unprecedented, sustaining award is clear evidence of the NGA's commitment to the commercial imaging industry.
From receding ice caps on Mt. Kilimanjaro to the "secret" nuclear facilities of other nations, GeoEye satellite imagery can help people understand humankind's impact on the planet by providing timely, quality location intelligence. Even in the entertainment industry, video games like Ubisoft's/Redstorm Entertainment's "High Altitude Warfare Experimental" (H.A.W.X) and hit movies like "Transformers," "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Green Zone" use GeoEye imagery to provide realism and authenticity to the visuals that support the story line.
Historic and current geospatial imagery has become a truly vital commercial resource. Stay tuned to our corporate site, www.GeoEye.com, for news about GeoEye-2 (in development now) and other exciting advancements in the world of satellite imaging.
The world’s highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite was launched on September 6, 2008. GeoEye-1 captures images of the Earth at .41-meter resolution.
Watch an overview of how geospatial imaging and GIS technologies work together in life- and world-changing ways.
Read about how U.S. policies have shaped the commercial remote sensing industry.