Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Sentinels Rising

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Sentinels Rising

Article excerpt

Commercial High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and Its Implications for US National Security

ON 24 DECEMBER 1997, at the Svobodnyy Cosmodrome situated in a far comer of eastern Siberia, a modified Russian SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile arched skyward, but rather than the single thermonuclear weapon it was originally designed to deliver, it carried a peculiar cargo-a US-made imaging satellite. * The owner of the satellite, EarthWatch, Inc. of Longmont, Colorado, contracted with Russia to boost its EarlyBird 1 spacecraft into polar orbit using a Start-1 space launch vehicle.l As the first of an entirely new generation of high-resolution* * commercial imaging satellites, EarlyBird 1 was postured to make history.2 Unfortunately, soon after the satellite settled into its low-Earth orbit (LEO), a problem developed with its communications system that has prevented EarthWatch from issuing commands to the satellite, and EarlyBird 1 is nonoperational.3

The false start of the first EarlyBird 1 satellite marked a rather inauspicious beginning to what the commercial remote-sensing industry hopes will quickly become a thriving, multibillion dollar market in the years ahead. Private remote-sensing firms are racing to get their high-resolution imagery satellites into orbit and imagery into the hands of consumers. Despite the daunting technical and financal risks, industry watchers predict that by mid-2001, over 30 satellites will be in orbit around the Earth using affordable technologies to provide volumes of imagery to an international clientele with fidelity previously unobtainable by the general public (see table 1 for system comparisons).4 No longer will the United States and the former Soviet Union enjoy their hegemony over satellite imaging of the Earth. Instead, they must share their vantage point of Earth from the ultimate "high ground" with other nations as a fleet of mercantile sentinels rises to provide high-resolution imagery to customers around the world.

The Military Challenges of the Year 2000 Constellation

The Clinton administration issued Presidential Decision Directive INSC-23 (PDD-23), entitled "U.S. Policy on Foreign Access to Remote Sensing Space Capabilities," on 9 March 1994. It established the policy framework to boost the nascent American remote sensing market so it could compete with foreign providers of high-resolution imagery.s It also piggy-backed on the groundwork already laid by the Land Remote Sensing Act of 1992 (PL. 102555), which, inter alia, recognized that "the national interest of the United States lies in maintaining international leadership in satellite remote sensing."6 More important, PDD-23 reversed earlier policy that had sought to restrict commercial entry into the remote-sensing market. By liberalizing US licensing procedures, the White House and Congress formally acknowledged that not only had the geopolitical landscape fundamentally changed, but there was simply no easy way to get the "genie back into the bottle" with respect to the proliferation of satellite imaging technology.7 Spatial Resolution and

Military Utility

To appreciate the security challenges brought about by current and planned commercial imaging satellites, it is instructive to survey what the first-generation reconnaissance satellites accomplished for the United States. The highly classified Corona project, operating under cover as the Discoverer space flight program, began in August 1960 and in little more than a decade collected over 800,000 images over "denied territory" that finally lifted the veil of secrecy from the USSR that had stymied accurate assessments of Soviet strategic capabilities.8 With its broad area coverage and reasonably good spatial resolution (two to 11 meters), Corona debunked the myth of a "missile gap" by providing the Eisenhower administration with incontrovertible evidence that Soviet offensive missile strength had been significantly overestimated. …

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