Google's Super Satellite Captures First Image
This bird's-eye view of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania was the first image ever seen by the GeoEye-1, the world's highest-resolution commercial satellite sponsored by Google, when it opened its camera door earlier this week.
The 4,300-pound satellite collected the image at noon EDT on Oct. 7 while moving from the north pole to the south pole in a 423-mile-high orbit at 17,000 miles per hour, or 4.5 miles per second. The spacecraft can take photos at a resolution of up to 41 cm -- close enough to zoom in on the home plate of a baseball diamond, according to Mark Brender, GeoEye's vice president of communications and marketing.
Even though the GeoEye-1 satellite sports a colorful Google sticker, its key customer is actually not Google but rather the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a U.S. government agency that analyzes imagery in support of national security. The NGA is paying for half of the development of the $502 million satellite and has committed to purchasing imagery from it. Google is GeoEye's second major partner.
"This is the opposite of a spy satellite," Brender said in a phone interview. "Spies don't put info on the internet and sell imagery. We're an Earth-imaging satellite, and we can sell our imagery to customers around the world who have a need to map and measure and monitor things on the ground."
Since around the late 70s, the military has used high-resolution spy satellites capable of reading newspaper headlines in Red Square. But only in recent years the technology became available to the public and businesses while concurrently making dramatic strides in coverage and resolution. For example, when Google Earth launched in 2004, its imagery was low-res and spotty. But by March 2006, a third of the world population could get a bird's-eye view of their own homes in high resolution.
There's one catch for Google: While the GeoEye-1 will provide imagery to the NGA at the maximum resolution of 43 cm, Google will only receive images at a 50-cm resolution because of a government restriction, Brender explained. However, Google's partnership with GeoEye is exclusive, meaning the search-engine giant will be the only online mapping site using the satellite's photos.
"We're commercializing a technology that was once only in the hands of the governments," Brender said. "Just like the internet, just like GPS, just like telecom -- all invented by the government. And now we are on the front end of the spear that is commercializing this technology."
Considered the world's most-accurate commercial imaging satellite, the GeoEye-1 had been undergoing calibration and inspection since it was launched on Sept. 6 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
A second satellite, GeoEye-2, slated to launch in 2011 or 2012, will have a resolution of 25 cm, company representatives promised. However, Google's satellite imagery will not likely get more detailed because of the 50-cm regulation.