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View of Melbourne from the Ikonos satellite at 9:58 am, Thursday 23 March 2000. Photo image copyright Space Imaging

Satellites now a money-spinner


Sunday Age, 9th April 2000

Big Brother is square. He comes in a box about half the size of a small car. And at 9.58 am on Thursday, 23 March, a sunny morning as the shadows cast by Melbourne's skyline show, he was up there, watching commuter-packed trams trundle up and down Swanston Street.

Big Brother is called Ikonos. And he's a satellite. A commercial satellite that can see objects on Earth only a metre across. And he doesn't just spectate. Every minute of every day he beams images back to Earth of our comings and goings by plane, train and car. And of secrets that govemments would rather keep to themselves, like military installations, covert forest clearance or the impact of war. The pictures are so sharp you could be forgiven for thinking they come from a helicopter hovering just metres overhead.

But they don't. Ikonos is almost 800 kilometres away, orbiting the Earth at seven kilometres a second. Circling the planet 14 times every day. At its launch, from a Californian air force base last September, the Colorado company that owns it, Space Imaging, said it wanted to "revolutionise the Earth information business".

And revolutionise it has. Detailed images of the Earth, never before visible to the civilian eye, are now for sale to any- one with the dollars to spare.

The obvious question is: what can it see? Does it invade our privacy, watch where we go, who we meet ? For now the answer is no. Ikonos sees cars, not number plates. Crowds, not individuals. And the biological fact that we wear faces on the front of our heads, not on top, means that Ikonos would never recognise us, even if it could discern detail down to tens of centimetres.

Which is not to say that the technology to see more doesn't exist. The scene from the film Patriot Games in which satellite images identify terrorists from space isn't so far from the truth. It's an open secret among imaging scientists that the US military has satellites in use that can see much more than Ikonos.

But all that may be about to change. Gail Kelly, the national business manager at iglass, the Melbourne company that is selling Ikonos images throughout Australia and New Zealand, can see a day when the military won't bother with its own satellite-imaging programs. "The race is on to put commercial satellites in orbit," she explains. "India, Canada, Korea and the US all want to be first with clearer, sharper images. They're catching up. And the day will come when the miiitary will be able to buy the sharpest images around from private companies - saving themselves the hassle and expense of putting their own satellites into orbit."

For now, however, the miiitary is still jumpy. Ikonos is seeing parts of the world it would rather it didn't. Such as missile launch sites in North Korea and warships moored off the coast of China. Or US military aircraff grounded at an airbase one day, then nowhere to be seen - presumably off on a mission - the next. In granting a licence to Space Imaging to market one-metre images, the US Government tried to exert shutter control, stating that images could not be taken at times "when national security or international obligations or foreign policy may be compromised" . But what sounds like a catch-all means nothing in the global marketplace that satellite imaging has become. If the US tries to enforce its rules too rigidly, commercial operators will simply move elsewhere - taking a leaf out of the book of radio and television companies which successfully broadcast and dodge the rules at home by basing themselves abroad. There is nothing to prevent the Space Imagings of this world relocating to a regulation-free tropical island and exploiting North American hunger for satellite pictures from abroad.

The absence of rules governing space makes it all so easy. The rules governing international air traffic could not be more different - every atom of air attainable by aircraft is strictly regulated. But when it comes to space no such rules exist. The United Nations has set out an open skies policy, and from satellites in orbit you can see what you want, when you want, and beam data back to to Earth to your heart's content. Poster- sized secret missile sites, war- ships and all.

And decimated forests. Mass graves in Bosnia. Flood damage, tornado paths and volcanic eruptions. The applications are endless, and avail- able to anyone who can pay.

In some ways, it can be argued, Ikonos is a Big Brother of a more democratic mind: individuals keep their privacy while multinationals and governments are held to account in a way that has never been possible before. While the fleeting eye of Ikonos cannot hope to recognise people, the impact of an oil spill is obvious, and the disturbed earth concealing mass graves impossible to deny.

But this is a commercial world. A world where money dictates what we see. Within 24 hours of a tornado hitting the Texan city of Fort Worth last week, Space Imaging had an Ikonos image mapping the whirlwind's path of destruction. But there were no such images of Mozambique, when half the country was under water. It doesn't take an actuary to work out that the Mozambicans are highly unlikely to be able to afford $A50 per square kilometre of Ikonos image.

For now, there's no doubt that control of Ikonos' shutter is held by purse-strings. In Australia, iglass' main market is insurance companies, town planners, energy companies and, of course, the military. Environmentalists wanting evidence of rainforest destruction or farmers wanting to monitor salinity will have to queue up and pay up like everyone else.

The price will come down - eventually - and accessibility will be improved. In the same way that videos used to cost 10 times more than they do now, there's no doubt that competition and the emergence of new technology will force prices down.

If only the sky were the limit. But these all-seeing, all- swivelling crusaders against environmental damage have one fatal flaw. They're unreliable. Big Brother Ikonos did have a younger sibling: Ikonos One, which was launched last April only to crash into the South Pacific seas. His untimely demise was put down to mechanical failure. Little mention is made of him. Or of the fact that clouds can play havoc with results. And that rapid response to a Texan tornado would not have been so rapid if the emergency services had waited 20-odd hours for the first image of the disaster to come through. In some ways this is a technology that has much to overcome. In others it opens a window on our world that most of us had thought confined to an Orwellian vision.

Sharon Mascall is an Age columnist and BBC producer. Dr Paul Dare is a research fellow at the Department of Geomatics, University of Melbourne, which does research for iglass.