French satellite photography may eclipse American Landsat service

France is moving in on American territory - in outer space. While the United States dithers on moves to commercialize its Landsat remote-sensing satellites, France is pressing ahead with a grandiose plan to turn picture snapping from outer space into a business venture.

Remote-sensing satellites, a hundred miles or more above the earth, take pictures of the surface with highly sophisticated cameras. The photographs, coded as computer data, are sent to receiving stations on earth by electronic signal.

The US started its government-backed Landsat service in 1972 with the latest satellite - Landsat 4 - launched last July. Customers for the pictures include mapping agencies, companies interested in mineral deposits, and agricultural workers monitoring crop growth. Government and private agencies have put $1 billion into the Landsat system.

But the Reagan administration is being held up in its plans to turn Landsat into a commercial service. So far, few companies have shown interest in taking over Landsat from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration due to high costs.

In France, meanwhile, the government is putting (STR)200 million ($300 million) into a satellite sensing system that, if all goes to plan, will be self-financing in the 1990s. Spot Image, a company largely owned by the French government but having private shareholders, is to launch two remote-sensing satellites in 1985 and 1987.

The government will pay for the craft plus a ground station and data center in Toulouse in southern France. Gerard Brachet, chairman of Spot Image, said his company aims to sell data worth (STR)25 million ($37 million) by 1988. Thereafter he says sales should increase by 20 percent per year.

Despite government ownership, Mr. Brachet says Spot Image is being run as a private company. Brachet's staff in France - which now totals 13 but should climb to 40 next year - has talked to countries around the world to persuade them to buy data from Spot Image. Ground stations that receive data from Landsat craft would, with a little modification, also handle signals from Spot Image vehicles. Computers in the stations turn the data into recognizable pictures.

Brachet is focusing marketing efforts on the dozen or so countries that already own Landsat stations. He says he is negotiating with Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, and Canada. The nations of Western Europe will receive data via antennas operated by the European Space Agency in Italy and Sweden. Spot Image has already worked out a pricing policy for its data, which compares well with the American system of selling Landsat information.

Spot Image already has set up a subsidiary in Washington. Mr. Brachet says: ''People we talk to in the US show a very positive attitude. They are impressed by our sense of purpose.''

The Washington subsidiary - Spot Image Inc., with a staff of three - has already talked to representatives of the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst about possible partnerships. The universities could set up their own ground stations to receive data from the French satellites, or they could act as agents for sales directly from Toulouse.

In the American system, countries that want to receive signals direct from the Landsat spacecraft have to pay the US government a ''rental'' of $600,000 annually for a license. This is on top of the $10 million or so that they have to pay for their own ground station.

Spot Image has hit on a different formula which Brachet says is more businesslike. Countries with their own ground stations will pay his company only for the data they require. There is no annual license fee. Each day, they will telex their requirements to Spot Image's headquarters in Toulouse. Data for an area of 60 square kilometers (about 37 square miles) will cost around $1,000 which is, says Brachet, comparable to the cost of Landsat data.

Spot Image claims that several technical factors give it an edge over the American satellites. First, the sensors on the satellites will give pictures with a resolution of 10 meters - better than the best instruments on Landsat which only can see objects 30 meters wide.

Second, the cameras on the French craft are steerable, so they can give stereoscopic information about, for example, the height of mountains. This is superior to the Landsat system which provides only two-dimensional data. The good resolution of the French satellites has attracted interest from military officials.

A few months ago, officials from Iran talked to French companies about obtaining a receiving station. Data from space would enable the country to keep an eye on neighboring territories such as Iraq. But Brachet says firmly that Spot Image refused to make a deal because of the military connotations.

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