May 27, 2009 Since the early 1960s, super powerful spy satellites have been the stuff of the military and intelligence communities. Now two U.S. companies have launched commercial imaging satellites that offer the same sort of space-based images of the Earth to the public. One of these companies, GeoEye of Dulles, Va., launched a multi-million dollar satellite last year, and it's the highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite in the world.
From its vantage point of 425 miles in space, the 4,300-pound GeoEye-1 satellite orbits the Earth and focuses its powerful lens on the surface below, snapping electronic images that can resolve objects on the ground as small as 41 cm across (16 inches). That's approximately the size of home plate on a baseball diamond. These images are typically processed and sold to the military for mapping and to companies like Google, which makes them available to the public through its platform Google Earth. (Because of federal regulations, the publicly-available images are slightly lower resolution -- approximately 50 cm).
In Baltimore at next week's CLEO/IQEC, GeoEye's Systems Engineering Director Michael Madden will describe some of the satellite's key features, such as the fact that it's the first commercial satellite with military-grade star trackers, which along with GPS makes the imagery from the satellite very accurate -- an important aspect for making precise maps. He will also preview the satellite GeoEye-2, which is expected to be launched around 2012 and would have a ground resolution twice as fine as GeoEye-1.
These powerful public eyes in the sky have already had an impact. Madden says for instance, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego is using satellite imagery to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia. A few months ago, one of the enduring photos taken during U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration was the image captured by GeoEye-1 of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which showed throngs of people crowded together. In March 2009, the GeoEye-1 satellite captured a close-up image of a North Korean missile sitting on the launch pad just 25 minutes before launch. GeoEye-1 also provided a look at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington, D.C. From the space photo, details were clear enough to resolve individual trees, ripples on the Potomac River, and people and cars crowded along the Tidal Basin, the area in downtown Washington, D.C. where the festival takes place.
This research is scheduled to be presented during the 2009 Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics/International Quantum Electronics Conference (CLEO/IQEC) May 31 to June 5 at the Baltimore Convention Center in Baltimore.
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