People passing through 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington on Sept. 30 had no idea that the world's first private spy camera was orbiting 400 miles overhead. But the spacecraft snapped a picture of the intersection sharp enough to show their cars, surrounding buildings, monuments and city bustle.
Inaugurating a new commercial era, Space Imaging Inc., the private company in Thornton, Colo., that built the spacecraft, made the photograph public yesterday. It is the world's first commercial image from space whose sharpness rivals those of military spies in the sky.
The release caps many years of planning, delay and debate. The emerging spy satellite industry holds promise for geographers, urban planners and others, but it also poses security and privacy questions.
Among other uses, the industry is expected to aid detection of nations trying to set off underground nuclear explosions in secret, augmenting global sensors that can detect rumbles from clandestine blasts.
"It's one of the most significant developments in the history of the space age," said John E. Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. "It was revolutionary when it was available to the nuclear powers, and one expects it to have similar potential now that it is commercial."
The new wave of commercial space cameras can see objects as small as a few feet wide and thus show cars, homes, roads, boats, trees, buildings, pipelines, bridges, tanks, jets and missiles -- but not individual people. The image released yesterday shows the Washington Monument, part of the White House Ellipse and buildings including the Department of Commerce and the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
The company said it was taking orders, but no images would be sold until late this year. Mark E. Brender, a Space Imaging spokesman, said prices would range from $30 to $600 per square mile. He added that the minimum order, at least for now, would be $1,000.
Eastman Kodak, a top contractor for military spy satellites, built the camera and telescope system, whose main mirror is 27 inches wide.
Space Imaging is owned by the Lockheed Martin Corp., which makes many of the military's spy satellites, and E-Systems Inc., a unit of Raytheon that provides many of their communication links.
Pub Date: 10/13/99