Satellites Change How We See the Earth

At left: Emmett Louis Till, Chicago teenager whose body was found in Tallahatchie River, Mississippi, 8-31-55; right: Jesse Jackson headshot, politician, Houston, Texas, 9-5-05 AP

We are at the beginning of a bold new age of Earth observation. For years, government-launched weather satellites have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Now a new range of commercial, foreign, and U.S. government satellites are offering the public improved 'eye-in-the-sky' capabilities. While there will always be secret information collected by spy satellites, this new age of open skies is broadly changing how we will peer down upon the Earth.

Powerful new computer technology coupled with greater access to foreign and commercial satellite imagery has begun to revolutionize broadcast journalism. Formerly classified Russian military satellite systems are now making high-resolution two-meter commercial imagery available through SPIN-2. (Such black and white imagery allows you to see buildings and structures clearly defined on the ground.) Other international sources of Earth images, including France's SPOT Image and India's Space Research Organization , are seeing more of their images on the airwaves.

The biggest part of this revolution came with the successful launch last fall of the Ikonos satellite. SpaceImaging has begun to sell remarkable imagery from Ikonos ,the first commercial satellite with an astonishing one-meter resolution . Other U.S. and foreign commercial satellite companies, like Orbimage , West Indian Space , and Earthwatch are promising their high-resolution satellites will soon follow. With one-meter imagery, even trucks and cars are identifiable. (For a remarkable display of satellite imagery, go to the Earthetc.com imagery server to see some of this imagery streamed live on the web!)

It is clear that what broadcast journalists have been exprimenting with (the ability to visualize the world in a dramatic and "truthful" way) has added to the process of democratizing satellite and aerial images. Already, we at CBS News, using sophisticated computer software, have been able to change what people can expect to see on television.

Since the IKONOS satellite has been in space, journalists and organizations have provided the public with extraordinary images of previously "denied areas" such as Chinese airbases , Pakistan and India's weapons sites , North Korea's missile installations, and the super-secret "Area 51" Air Force test range.

In addition, previously inaccessible disaster sites have been quickly made visible to the world: including mudslides in Venezuela , flooding in Mozambique, tornado damage in Texas, etc.

In addition, an astonishing amount of declassified intelligence imagery has become available on-line: The secretive National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) have recently declassified and released mountains of (relatively ancient) imagery from CORONA, an early spy satellite system. Much of this imagery, collected between 1960 and 1972, focused on Soviet military emplacements.

At the urging of Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE), former Intelligence committtee member, NIMA has been tasked with developing a website as part of a campaign called "Imagery for Citizens" that was to, in theory, begin providing declassified imagery to assist decision-makers and the public. Sadly, internal battles within the Defense Department and Intelligence community on what the public should be allowed to see continue to cast genuine doubt on whether any significant government imagery will actually be made available. In addition, new restrictions are proposed that could limit the release of other imagery. Meanwhile, nearly twenty foreign countries are moving rapidly to develop their own military and commercial imagery capabilities.

NASA's successful earth-mapping mission, known as the "S.R.T.M." (or Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) , will create an extremely detailed three-dimensional representations of most of the Earth's surface. Unfortunately, the National Imaging and Mapping Agency, which footed part of the bill for the mission, continues to threaten withholding the most valuable data from the mission which scientists hoped to use to predict hurricane flooding and other phenomenon. At the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is processing the "S.R.T.M." data, scientists have already made dramatic visualizations over the San Andreas Fault using this dramatic resource.

Since March 1999, when the first NATO bombs began to fall on Yugoslavia, NATO and Pentagon briefings resulted in the selective release of a remarkable collection of "downgraded" satellite images of refugees and bomb-damage. National Security expert John Pike and his associate Tim Brown of the Federation of American Scientists assembled a treasure-trove of satellite and aerial images available over the Internet. They have been on the forefront of using declassified "Corona" imagery and some of the new high-resolution one-meter imagery to provide the public with an unprecedented "Ground Truth" of military facilities around the globe.

Perhaps the most exciting web-site that gives a taste of the imagery that's becoming available is the Terraserver where you can search for and download high-quality images of areas you select from around the world.

In the not too distant future, military and government uses of high-resolution imagery will be dwarfed by the many commercial uses. Sometime soon, every police and fire department, taxi dispatcher, real-estate agent, etc., will routinely use such imagery (loaded with other rich electronic data) instead of maps. Just as the Internet was once solely the domain of the Defense Department, commercialization of satellite imagery is likely to radically shift the balance of users toward the public.

Artistic impressions hae graphically illustrated news stories on the air for decades. In the past few months, CBS NEWS has added satellite imagery to report on everything from the crisis in Kosovo to the Gulf War; North Korean nuclear developments; the atomic bomb tests in Pakistan and India; the assault on Osama Bin Laden's hideaway in Afghanistan; hurricane season; El Nino; and the shuttle launch.

This new trend toward using real images and stunning "reality-based" 3-D graphics has already altered the landscape of television news reporting. The ability to superimpose life-like models (of spacecraft, aircraft, bombs, vehicles, etc.), to show three-dimensional buildings and neighborhoods, and to be able to present accurate terrain models also represents a sea change in news presentation. It represents a move for even greater accuracy and truth in journalism.


That is just the beginning: Our ability to accurately present fully rendered 3-dimensional cities "extruded" from satellite and aerial imagery, with photographically-accurate textures, is already being realized. This will allow us to present audiences with "virtual-helicopter shots" over areas that presently are inaccessible or economically unfeasible to photograph.

It seems likely, however, that some U.S. Government agencies will attempt to aggressively limit the availability of U.S. commercial satellite imagery, citing national security. At recent debates in March at the Freedom Forum and last May at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, representatives of the State Department and the press locked horns over the thorny issue of "shutter control." This concept, tied to the licensing of the U.S. commercial satellites, gives the government authority to determine what may and may not be imaged. ("Shutter control" provisions do not apply to the increasingly numerous foreign commercial-imaging satellites.) In August '98, the State Department quietly informed several U.S. satellite companies that they would be limited in imaging certain portions of the Middle East. This ruling and other "prior restraint" efforts seem certain to result in First Amendment legal challenges to "shutter control" policies.

Now that the first high-resolution U.S. commercial satellite has been successfully launched and with others soon to follow, we may reasonably expect significantly greater availability of sharp pictures over portions of the world once inaccessible to cameras. But thorny issues are still unresolved: which images will the public be allowed to see and what potential harm may arise from public access to views of the world the government has long maintained as secret?

by Daniel Dubno , CBS News



  • Dan Dubno

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