Anybody who wants the lowdown on a coastal oil spill, a vanishing redwood forest - or even Area 51, the Nevada military base where some UFO believers say the US government is hiding an alien spaceship - will soon be able to order "spy satellite" photos more detailed than anything the CIA had during the first half of the cold war.
New commercial imaging satellites able to zoom in on anything from a logging truck in a forest to a possible building site will offer detailed pictures to anyone with a credit card and access to the Internet.
Since the mid-1980s, the NASA-developed Landsat and French SPOT satellites have sold medium-resolution pictures to the public for thousands of dollars each. But two satellites set to be launched this year, with more to follow, promise much-cheaper pictures that will be 100 times as sharp.
Access to this advanced technology will enable citizen watchdogs to monitor governments and corporations in unprecedented ways. But some observers say these sharp "eyes in the sky" will be used even more often by businesses and governments themselves.
Find all this hard to believe? Just ask Philip McNab and Vipin Gupta.
At 3 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1993, China detonated a nuclear bomb that rattled a sensor in Colorado that signaled a computer in London that triggered an air-raid-siren recording in Mr. McNab's bedroom, tossing him out of bed.
He quickly phoned his buddy, Mr. Gupta. For three years, the two had purchased and analyzed commercial satellite photographs of the Chinese nuclear test site as an experiment in citizen arms-control verification.
Hours after the blast, the two had analyzed seismic data and reported details of China's latest nuclear test to the press.
For China, the test was routine.
For activists McNab and Gupta, however, the Rube Goldberg-style monitoring of the blast was a quantum leap for grass-roots democracy. It demonstrated, Gupta says, that two people could monitor nuclear arms-control treaties using personal computers, the Internet, and commercial satellite pictures.
Military satellites can pick out an object the size of a license plate - though they can't quite read the lettering on it. Gupta and McNab relied on Landsat and other images with a top resolution of 10 meters (about 30 feet) - good enough to identify major roads, ground-scarring, and large buildings at China's Lop Nor test site. The new satellites will be able to zoom in on objects as small as one meter across.
"This [technology] is utterly radical," says John Pike, space policy director of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a Washington think tank. "We're going from pictures that cost thousands [of dollars] where we can barely see buildings to pictures that cost hundreds and we can identify cars."
Customers eventually will be able to receive pictures on their desktop computers 90 minutes after the satellite collects them, says Douglas Gerull, president of EarthWatch Inc. in Longmont, Colo., which plans to put the first one-meter-resolution commercial satellite in orbit this summer.
Watchdogs will grow sharper teeth
It was a political change that cleared the way for commercial high-resolution satellite imagery. Worried that foreign competition might surpass the American lead in satellite imaging, the Clinton administration in 1994 decided to permit the sale of one-meter-resolution images to foreign and commercial clients.
What will be the long-term impact? Some observers see big oil and mining concerns gobbling up the high-resolution pictures and using them to push into ever-more-remote corners of the globe to ferret out pockets of remaining natural resources.
Others, however, envision a global chorus of armchair watchdogs calling governments and large corporations to account for everything from over-logging to inhumane treatment of refugees.
Within a few years, ordering satellite photo reconnaissance through a personal computer hooked to the Internet's World Wide Web will be as common as using a fax machine, Mr. Pike says. Already, the FAS "Public Eye" project on the Web has posted dozens of declassified pre-1972 United States government "Corona" spy satellite pictures.
Gupta, now a satellite systems expert at Sandia Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., agrees with space policy expert Pike. "Soon you'll see organizations and individuals using satellite information to track all kinds of activity they couldn't before simply because of political or physical barriers," Gupta says.
Satellite imaging, also called earth remote sensing (ERS), is also rapidly being merged with two other powerful technologies: Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a type of software database used for making maps.
Developed by the US military to guide cruise missiles and help troops pinpoint their position on a map, a GPS unit the size of a small radio can pick up satellite signals and tell the user exactly where he or she is anywhere on earth. Today, GPS units are regularly used aboard commercial ships and private sailboats; some are even showing up in taxis and rental cars.
Bolivia's Yuqui Indians stake their claim
Less well known is that indigenous groups battling to retain control of traditional lands are using satellites. Coordinates from a GPS unit can be combined with ERS images and local information about the land, and plugged into a GIS database.
In 1992 the Yuqui Indians of Bolivia, with a population of only about 150, were granted 284,000 acres of lush rain forest by the government. The problem was how to defend that land against loggers, miners, and settlers.
Allyn Stearman, an anthropologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, was one of those who came to the rescue. With funding from the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, she and Keith Jarvis, a graduate student, helped the Yuquis quickly put together a high-tech map of their land.
A GPS unit mounted on a small boat was piloted up a river that formed a border of the Yuqui land, recording the precise map coordinates as it went. Back on land, the Yuquis' GPS data was merged with digitized military maps of the area into a single GIS database. The coordinates were overlaid on a satellite photograph of the land, creating a highly accurate and beautiful map. Ms. Stearman says even she was startled.
"The map had an enormous impact," she says. "Here's this tiny little indigenous group with a high-tech document more accurate than anything else in the country. It convinced people this was really Yuqui land, that it wasn't just a figment of their imagination."
The map was displayed at a dinner with then-President Jaime Pas Zamora, winning the Yuquis valuable political credibility. Copies were laminated and handed out to publicize the Yuquis' land rights.
"We showed it to everyone - loggers, commercial fishermen, and colonists trying to move in on them," Stearman says. "It was incredibly effective."
Mr. Jarvis agrees, but warns that the technology is still too expensive and difficult for many indigenous groups to use. Today the Yuquis, he points out, lack the funds to update their map with new satellite images to see which areas of their land may have been intruded upon.
"Fantastic technology was brought to bear," Jarvis says. "This small Stone Age group would never otherwise have gotten international recognition. But when the funding ended, and technicians left, the Yuquis were left sitting in the jungle. They have a nice map, but that's about it."
Redistributing land in South Africa
A backlash from government is a potential problem, too. Peter Poole, who has helped indigenous groups across Canada and Latin America learn satellite mapping, says satellites can give groups more knowledge than the authorities would like.
In Guyana, the Amerindian People's Association, a community-based indigenous group, was given thousands of acres of land by the government decades ago. But as the years went by, their territory was fragmented by development and colonists. The government's long-promised mapping of the land never happened.
So the Amerindians decided to learn how to map using GPS as taught by Mr. Poole. Lately, however, the government has refused Poole a permit to travel beyond Georgetown, the capital, to teach high-tech mapping.
"I think the government is just worried about the Amerindians getting too much information," he says. "This project is being stepped on because the government sees the Amerindians as getting above themselves ... and they don't like that."
Just the opposite is happening in South Africa, where land reform is a priority for the post-apartheid government. The problem there is how to redraw boundaries and reapportion lands that today are held by white farmers but originally were inhabited by blacks.
In Kiepersol, in the Eastern Transvaal Province of South Africa, authorities are eagerly embracing a local mapping project that combines satellite images, GPS, and a GIS database of local history and information about soil conditions culled from tribal elders.
Trevor Harris, a West Virginia University geographer who worked on the Kiepersol project, is enthusiastic about what the technology can do. But he and others warn that these new tools could easily be put to work against grass-roots democracy.
"It's great that there is more information available," he says. "But if you still need a PhD to run the GIS software and $50,000 of high-tech equipment, then it will still favor government agencies and work against community, neighborhood, and nonprofit groups."
Identifying ecosystems in North America
Despite the technical and financial hurdles, indigenous and environmental groups in North America are also making use of satellite mapping and GIS databases to protect land - mainly from corporate development or logging.
In the United States, the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, last year began analyzing medium-resolution Landsat images to identify 60 distinct eco-regions in the lower 48 states. Satellite imagery is key to the project.
"We're looking with eagerness at the launch of these new satellites," says Rob Solomon, director of the Nature Conservancy's conservation systems in Arlington, Va. "If this makes high resolution available at low cost, it will definitely change the way we do our work."
In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the Sierra Club has spent tens of thousands of dollars and six years carefully analyzing Landsat images of the coastal temperate rain forest, made up of old-growth spruce and fir giants that create a canopy over the forest floor.
The result has been a public relations success. Merran Smith, a forest-protection campaigner, says a poster featuring a satellite image of the coastal rain forest has just been released. Its enhanced color image shows in yellow where old growth has been logged and in green where it still remains.
The group intends to use it in an international media campaign to counter the message of logging companies and the British Columbia government that enough parks have been set aside to preserve the province's old-growth forest.
"Satellite images are totally convincing," Ms. Smith says. "You show people a map, and they can clearly see what's left.... Vancouver Island has been nuked. You can see it outlined in yellow where 70 percent of old growth is gone."
Spy photos may help oil, mining firms
Despite such defiant talk and the promise new satellite images and mapping systems may hold for grass-roots activism, Karen Litfin, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, warns that the sword of technology can easily cut both ways.
She says mining and oil companies, as well as governments, may be the biggest beneficiaries and the major customers of the new satellite companies. In both financial clout and technical expertise, most activist groups may be overmatched.
Small countries currently unable to afford their own spy satellites will be able to buy reconnaissance photos of their neighbors. That could promote peace by letting each neighbor know where its neighbor's troops are. But the images also could help an aggressor plan a first strike. Israel is among a few countries pushing for restrictions on the release of commercial satellite images of its territory.
Meanwhile, Professor Litfin, the political scientist, is hopeful, but less than sanguine, about the prospects for the use of improved satellite images by individuals and grass-roots groups.
"These satellite-based technologies could lead to greater centralization of power rather than greater democracy," she warns. "We just don't know."
But Robert Wientzen, a spokesman for EarthWatch, the satellite company, is more upbeat.
"Private citizens are going to be able to place an order on the Internet, setting the date and criteria to acquire the image they need," he says.
"That's a tremendously empowering capability."
Sharper Eyes in Earth Orbit
A new generation of commercial satellites with 1-meter resolution (equivalent to a photograph taken from an airplane at 3,000 feet) will provide images 100 times as sharp as the 10-meter resolution currently available to the general public from equipment such as NASA's Landsat and France's SPOT.
Company SPACE IMAGING EOSAT ORBIMAGE EARTHWATCH SPIN-2
Thornton, Colo. Dulles, Va. Longmont, Colo. Russia
Spacecraft CARTERRA 1 OrbView-3 Quickbird KVR-1000
Launch Late 1997 Summer '97 Mid-1998 In orbit
Resolution 1 meter (black & white) 1 & 2 meters (b&w) 1 meter (b&w) 2 meters (b&w)
4 meters (color) 4 meters color 4 meters color
Businesses, local governments, and environmental groups are expected to use the images for:
Checking for soil erosion
Selecting building sites
Exploring for oil, gas, and minerals
Planning transportation routes
Monitoring wildlife habitats
Tracking toxic and chemical spills
Managing natural resources
View images at left on the Internet at www.orbimage.com/orbview/prodapps.htm