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Rockets' Red Glare

[whitespace] New generation of spy satellites came in from the Cold War

By Michael Learmonth

MORE THAN 40 YEARS after Sputnik and 30 after the United States launched "Corona," the world's first military spy satellite, a new space race has begun.

Until now, the only satellite images available for civilians have come from government satellites such as the French SPOT, the Canadian Radarsat, the American Landsat, and the Indian IRS-1C. In 1995, Walter Scott applied for and obtained from the U.S. Department of Commerce the very first license to build and launch a spy satellite to be owned and controlled by a private company.

With that license, EarthWatch built Earlybird I and its sister, Earlybird II, with cameras able to detect 3-meter objects on the ground. EarthWatch also landed a second license to build a second-generation satellite, dubbed Quickbird, which will be able to clearly resolve smaller objects, such as park benches and hot tubs, after it is launched sometime in 1999.

Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space in Sunnyvale is building a one-meter satellite named "Ikonos" for a subsidiary, Space Imaging. Ikonos will blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 20. The third player, Orbimage, of Dulles, Va., has a lucrative contract with NASA to launch its own 1-meter satellite later this year.

While other sensitive technologies like supercomputers and encryption have been closely guarded, the so-called remote-sensing industry has been allowed to flourish--the U.S. government's way of making it up to the military industrial complex made idle by the end of the Cold War. EarthWatch, for example, provided a comfortable landing for Lawrence Livermore's SDI techies, and the issuance of a satellite permit to Space Imaging was no small boon for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space.

John Copple assures that Ikonos is only one of many remote-sensing satellites that will be built at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale.

"One of the reasons the U.S. government allowed companies to sell high-resolution imagery is because they wanted to keep the industrial base alive," says Warren Ferster, a writer at Space News.

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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