U.S. Buys Up Afghanistan Images From Top Satellite

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
October 25, 2001

A key rule of military engagement is to know your enemy. The Pentagon has taken this mantra to the next level and has bought exclusive rights to all pictures of Afghanistan taken by the world's most powerful commercial imaging satellite, Ikonos.

The satellite provides unclassified images that can be shared with allies, said Joan Mears, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), a division of the Department of Defense. NIMA has purchased the full capacity of the satellite to supplement the military spy satellites, assisting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Unclassified images are valuable to the Defense Department because they do not reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the military satellites used to produce them.

The government declassified images of some terrorist camps in Afghanistan in 1998 which had been attacked in retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The images, which were from military satellites, were doctored before being released, said Duane A. Day, a visiting scholar at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "But they don't like to do this, they would rather use pictures from a commercial satellite."

"They are buying all the imagery that is available," said John Copple, CEO of Space Imaging, Inc., the privately held Colorado company which owns Ikonos. "And they're using it for maps, they're using it for planning, they're using it for damage assessment after they run missions—they're using it in a variety of ways."

Buying up the satellite's capacity also prevents the pictures from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and prevents the media from independently obtaining pictures of Afghanistan.

"We don't want the media to run satellite photos that can be interpreted by terrorists and place our forces in harm's way," said another spokesman for the Department of Defense.

Ikonos has a resolution of less than a meter (three feet)—that is high enough to distinguish a sedan from a pick-up, for example, and individual trees, but not detailed enough to read a license plate or spot a person in a crowd.

"If Osama bin Laden was laying on the ground staring up smiling and a satellite passed over we would not be able to tell it was him," said Day. "So, satellites aren't going to be the magic answer to fighting terrorism."

Military purposes require high-resolution pictures and this means operating in black and white. "U.S. intelligence satellites are probably capable of seeing something on the ground about the size of a softball—that's about ten centimeters (three inches). That's a tremendous capability but it comes at a tremendous price," said Day.

Commercial satellites on the other hand operate in a broader spectral range and can produce color photographs, which they pay for in lower resolution. But color pictures allow the observer to look at other things: crop forecasting, assessing local terrain, distinguishing between water and asphalt, identifying water pollution among other things.

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