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18 September 2007

A launch not to be missed

For those of our readers with continuing interest in space operations and GEOINT, we highly recommend the launch show for DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 tomorrow (and for those with invites, the launch party...)

Commercial imagery has come a long way indeed, largely a result of the unprecedented demand for IMINT in the post 9/11 world, but also driven by new commercial markets and unimagined systems of access and display that broke overhead systems out of the realm of the arcane and into Everyman’s reach.

These birds were a story of dot com innovation and the bruising realities of the bubble (does anyone recall how many failed to make orbit successfully? … especially those on the Russian PROTON launch vehicle… but in the 90’s, surplus Soviet ICBM boosters seemed like a cheap orbital access option. In retrospect, perhaps not so clever, but it was the era of early post-Wall globalization.)

Space operations are incredibly demanding, but those involved in birthing this amazing capability in its first private sector incarnations rose to the occasion. It is impossible now to imagine how we once taught the art and science of imagery analysis outside of the classified realm (using only the few dozen of declassified images released from national technical means, usually from air-breathing platforms and always highly obfuscated.)

The new generation of systems will offer half meter resolution – something deemed impossible (for the private sector) less than a decade ago. And most critically, commercial imagery has won over the last bastion of resistance – not the cloistered world of the IC (who at least recognized a good thing when they saw it in operation), but the insular world of the academics who are the primary users of overhead imagery for scientific research. The argument has advanced a long way from the early days of the quasi socialist impulse of free “open access” to all imagery “in the name of science”, regardless of acquisition, transmission, and storage costs. (While we support open access to publications and journals, and might have supported it for overhead imagery of scientific value, we recognized that the capabilities required a market mechanism to support its continued operation and development. Open access journals have gone much further to solving that – albeit for a function requiring smaller cash outlays.)

The continued expansion of commercial imagery constellations raises fascinating issues for space control debates, especially given the recent hostile actions demonstrating PRC anti-satellite and counterspace capabilities. The spectre of space warfare has the potential to dramatically alter the insurance implications for operating an expensive and difficult to maintain on orbit asset, complicating private sector efforts in the area. Likewise, engagements of private sector systems by nation-state offensive capabilities will raise not only the prospect of conflict initiation, but also a host of legal and financial repercussions which are difficult to predict in advance. Indeed, the prospect of court ordered asset seizures in compensation for the loss of the platform may at some point even weight into the balance of deterrence (assuming rational actors and a continued desire on the part of the hostile country to maintain ties with the global economic system.)

The first generation of academic papers – most out of the khaki tower of the military war colleges and service schools – helped pave the early way for what would happen when commercial imagery became operational reality. (Even if, as always, real world events progressed far faster, and far stranger, than any prediction could foretell.) Much remains to be explored in terms of how the capability might yet evolve, and the new structures and systems that might yet be forged to exploit these unique eyes to solve new geospatial problems.

h/t O’Reilly Radar

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