Associated PressThe U.S. military is paying for the exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan even though its own satellites are thought to take far better pictures.
October 15, 2001
Military buys exclusive rights toBy JOHN J. LUMPKIN, Associated Press Writer
commercial satellite's pictures of war zone
This could serve two purposes: to provide an extra eye on Afghanistan, and to prevent anyone else from peeking at the war zone.
The images of the Ikonos satellite, among the best available to the public, will add to those collected by military satellites and airplanes, Joan Mears, a spokeswoman for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said.
Mears declined to discuss how much the government is paying for the pictures, only saying that the agency has paid for exclusive access to the area involved in Operation Enduring Freedom, the military code name for the strikes in Afghanistan. The agency's contract with Denver-based Space Imaging Inc. began Oct. 7 and is believed to be in the multimillion-dollar range.
A Space Imaging executive said the U.S. government had recently signed a large contract with his company, not only buying exclusive rights to the imagery but paying for all the time that the satellite is over the target area.
This serves to prevent anyone else from using Ikonos to take pictures of the war zone. It also prevents Space Imaging from selling the pictures to anyone else, which the company does with most of its imagery.
Mark Brender, executive director of government affairs and corporate communications for Space Imaging, declined to reveal the amount of the contract but said "it was a wonderful business transaction."
Top-of-the-line Ikonos pictures have one-meter resolution, meaning the satellite can distinguish features on the ground one meter in size or larger.
"You can count the cars in a parking lot, tell which are pickups and sedans, and tell what color they are," Brender said.
Ikonos pictures can cost buyers up to $200 per square kilometer of imagery, he said. Quick turnaround costs an extra $3,000, he said.
The resolution achieved by U.S. military satellites is kept secret, but it is probably about 10 times better than Ikonos can provide, said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy analyst and intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based watchdog group. He estimated military satellites can take pictures that distinguish objects as small as 10 centimeters in size.
But buying Ikonos imagery will still serve some military purpose, Aftergood said. U.S. military satellites and reconnaissance aircraft cannot be over the war zone at every instant, and Ikonos could serve as a backup. The satellite could also be used to take images where less resolution is needed, freeing up military satellites for more detailed work in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Buying exclusive rights to the pictures will keep the public - and the Taliban and bin Laden - from knowing where the U.S. military is looking. If a series of pictures of the airfield at Kandahar suddenly showed up on Space Imaging's Web site, that could provide a clue to U.S. military plans.
But the government is also denying the public the use of an important tool for oversight of its activities, Aftergood said, noting the media frequently buys satellite pictures of areas of news interest.
"At the moment, we're essentially dependent on the Pentagon as a sole source for battle information and damage assessment," he said. "This commercial imagery would provide one independent channel for assessing the conduct of the war."
In Afghanistan, groups could also use such imagery to track the movements of refugees and better plan food supplies for them, Aftergood said.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press