Pix in Space

The government makes it easier to sell satellite photos.


In June 1991, Itek Optical Systems of Lexington, Massachusetts, applied to the Department of State for a license to launch a satellite so the company could sell photographs of the earth's surface. Itek President James Frey suggests that, among other uses, high-resolution satellite terrain maps could have saved lives and property after last year's Midwest floods and this year's Northridge earthquake. Itek's license application still hasn't been approved. But a March 10 decision by the Clinton administration to loosen restrictions on the sale of satellite images could get Itek, and other fledgling satellite companies, off the ground.

Communications is by far the best known and largest commercial use of satellites, but satellite images, or remote sensing, "is rapidly becoming the second genuine space-based business," reports Aviation Week & Space Technology. For now, the market for satellite photos seems small—perhaps no more than $400 million in annual worldwide sales—but the RAND Corporation predicts it may reach $15 billion a year by the end of the decade. France, Russia, and other nations with space programs already sell satellite photos to any willing buyer.

The U.S. government, however, classified satellites and the pictures they take as munitions, subject to the same type of export restrictions placed on Stealth fighters and Patriot missiles. A 1992 law requires the Commerce Department to rule within 120 days on whether a company can get a license to sell satellite images. But the Bush administration granted only one company, WorldView Imaging Corp. of Livermore, California, a license.

Early on, the Clinton administration let the intelligence community dictate satellite policy. The CIA, fearing that terrorists or pariah governments would purchase sensitive satellite pictures, blocked commercial remote-sensing licenses. And several federal agencies had suggested prohibiting a private remote-sensing industry, relying entirely on sale of declassified government photos. Most lawmakers and industry analysts countered that American high-tech firms were eager to enter a market that already offered photos from foreign governments and entrepreneurs.

The administration's new policy retains tight controls on the export of satellite systems but establishes a much more liberal licensing procedure for U.S. companies that want to sell photos to foreign buyers. It also prohibits domestic firms from selling images to such pariah states as North Korea, Iraq, and Libya.

The March announcement both surprised and pleased analysts and the remote-sensing industry. Analyst Scott Pace of RAND's Critical Technologies Institute praises the administration's decision. "It's now easier [for a company] selling remote-sensing data to operate in the U.S.," he says. "And we did it using competing firms, not a government monopoly, to sell that data."