World View 3 satellite. Credit: DigitalGlobe

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation that recommends allowing U.S. firms to sell higher-resolution satellite imagery on the open market, a move welcomed by DigitalGlobe and other companies that have suggested changes. The relaxed imagery-resolution restrictions were recommended in a report the committee released Nov. 13 detailing the unclassified provisions of the intelligence authorization bill it approved Nov. 5.

“The Committee is concerned that foreign commercial imagery providers may soon be able to provide imagery at or better than the currently allowed commercial U.S. resolution limit of 0.5 meters,” lawmakers state in the 25-page report accompanying the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act (S. 1681), which the committee voted 13-2 to send to the Senate floor. “As foreign firms approach or surpass this level of resolution, current restrictions on U.S. commercial imagery data providers put the United States at a competitive disadvantage and may harm an industrial base that is important to national security.”

The report “encourages” the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to “promptly review” a licensing request from U.S. industry to collect and sell electro-optical imagery with a ground sampling resolution distance of 25 centimeters, or twice as sharp as the satellite imagery the United States currently allows to be sold on the open market. 

Satellite imagery firms in the United States and Europe have been petitioning their home governments to ease restrictions on the sharpness of satellite imagery than can be sold commercially. They argue that the current limits — put in place in 2000 when 80-centimeter resolution was the upper limit of commercial satellite imagery — are outdated.

Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe, which acquired competitor GeoEye in January, still competes in commercial markets with an aerial-imagery industry already selling 30-centimeter-resolution imagery of large stretches of the globe.  

Astrium GmbH of Germany, for example, announced Oct. 8 that it had tweaked its TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X radar-satellite system to squeeze out 25-centimeter imagery, albeit at scene sizes of limited appeal to customers seeking broad-area coverage. Astrium is also working on a next-generation radar satellite, called TerraSAR-X Next Generation, with a native 25-centimeter-resolution capability.

DigitalGlobe earlier this year petitioned the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — which licenses U.S. commercial remote sensing satellites — to allow it to sell commercially the 25-centimeter imagery it will collect using the WorldView-3 satellite scheduled to launch in summer 2014.

DigitalGlobe has five satellites in orbit and two more, including WorldView-3, under construction.

“We can get better resolution than [50 centimeters] now, but can’t sell commercially,” Marcy Steinke, DigitalGlobe’s senior vice president of government relations, said. “The [50-centimeter] resolution is being outdone around the world.”

Steinke said the company expects to hear from NOAA before the end of the year. 

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...