In 1900, Ladies’ Home Journal magazine predicted that in the new century, “Flying machines will carry powerful telescopes that beam back to Earth photographs as distinct and large as if taken from across the street.” Some 99 years later, that prediction came true, when GeoEye launched the world’s first high-resolution commercial Earth-imaging satellite, Ikonos.

The company’s most recent satellite, GeoEye-1, joined Ikonos in 2008. GeoEye-1 is the world’s highest-resolution commercial Earth-imaging satellite, with a telescope so powerful that from 680 kilometers in space it can see objects on the ground as small as 41 centimeters in size. Both satellites are supplying the U.S. government and commercial customers with highly detailed, map-accurate satellite imagery of the Earth.

Three U.S. presidents, three congressional commissions and many study groups over the last dozen years have strongly supported commercial remote sensing. In fact, U.S. policy states that the government should use commercial remote sensing technologies to the “maximum practical extent.” This has led the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to buy satellite imagery from GeoEye and its competitor, DigitalGlobe — the only American suppliers of high-resolution space-based imagery.

The government has come to rely on the commercial remote sensing industry for many critical requirements including intelligence gathering, mapping, humanitarian relief, geospatial Web services, predictive analytics and disaster response. GeoEye and DigitalGlobe’s libraries hold billions of square kilometers of imagery spanning much of the Earth, and we know the government uses this as a “foundation data” layer to provide high-quality mapping products and to monitor military activities and other important changes on the ground.

However, this reliance on commercial satellite imagery is changing. The Department of Defense indicated it would be pulling the rug out from commercial satellite operators when it released the “Defense Budget: Priorities and Choices” paper in January. The document said there would be “significant reductions” in the budget for commercial satellite imagery, in spite of the fact that the paper also stated that surveillance and reconnaissance are “critical to future success.” One financial analyst said the proposed cuts for fiscal 2013 alone are about $300 million.

As GeoEye and DigitalGlobe successfully met the imagery demands of the military and intelligence community, the NGA more heavily relied on commercial satellite imagery and services. Then in April 2009, after exhaustive internal reviews, there was a sea change in government decisions regarding the industry and its future. The secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence agreed to the so-called two-plus-two architecture in which two commercial-class satellites and two much larger, more sophisticated and more expensive classified satellites would be built to meet the future satellite imaging requirements of the military and intelligence community. The innovative plan led to the NGA awarding two decade-long EnhancedView contracts totaling more than $7 billion in 2010.

The terms of the contract caused both companies to immediately begin building next-generation imaging satellites. The long-term commitment from the NGA enabled GeoEye to raise money and invest significant resources to build even higher-quality satellites. GeoEye-2, which will have a ground resolution of 34 centimeters, is slated to launch in about a year. The company also has started some work on the entirely self-funded satellite GeoEye-3.

The significant budget cuts under consideration may change the face of the industry. They would make the U.S. firms less competitive with a growing number of imagery providers from overseas. It could be that the government will have to buy electro-optical imagery from European competitors, like Astrium, who are rapidly catching up with the quality of imagery now being provided by American companies. Or U.S. companies could be takeover targets for such firms.

The proposed cuts don’t simply impact the government; they would have downstream effects as well. Because the government is a long-term anchor customer, GeoEye is able to assist nongovernmental organizations that are working with the government on humanitarian issues. For example, GeoEye is providing imagery and analytic services to relief agencies to help map areas in Africa where warlord Joseph Kony is operating.

The proposed cuts would cause a serious and lasting loss of credibility for the U.S. government in future services-oriented public-private efforts. If the government wants to encourage the private sector to make long-term investments and promote innovations, it must follow through on its financial commitments and agreements.

Why is commercial imagery so important?

  • The more “eyes in the sky,” the better. While government intelligence satellites are vital, they are neither omnipresent nor immune from failure in the increasingly congested and contested space environment. As the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, said, “A multilayer system of slightly less-exquisite satellites is more beneficial than one wonderful platform. Not everything has to be exquisite, but it must have resilience and sustainability.” In combination, both exquisite intelligence satellites and highly capable commercial imaging satellites provide the right balance of imagery capabilities essential to satisfy national security requirements.
  • Commercial satellite imagery can satisfy the great majority of requirements and validated future needs of the government for imagery and geospatial products. Government officials have stated that improved commercial imagery satellites can meet more than 90 percent of our nation’s requirements to see and locate an object on the surface of the Earth. Both GeoEye and DigitalGlobe already have commercial operating licenses for satellites that are capable of 25-centimeter ground resolution. If next-generation commercial systems carry a slightly bigger mirror or are flown in a slightly lower orbit, they could easily achieve 25-centimeter ground resolution. That quality of imagery from multiple satellites would enable the industry to provide even more time-critical geospatial intelligence to multiple agencies and work in synergy with other government capabilities.
  • The defense industry understands that some cuts need to be made, but it’s important that they are the right cuts. Commercial satellites reduce the cost to the government because the commercial remote sensing industry can build and launch many systems for the cost of just one exquisite intelligence satellite. Moreover, commercial imaging satellites can more easily incorporate new technologies into satellite designs. Finally, commercial imagery is unclassified and can be readily shared with all federal agencies, allies and coalition partners. This is vital to disaster relief operations such as those conducted in response to the tsunami in Japan.
  • Commercial imaging companies use firm, fixed-price contracts for satellite acquisitions. This means the government knows exactly how much it is paying. The industry has a solid track record of delivering collection capacity on time and on budget. This contrasts with U.S. government satellite acquisitions, which are almost always executed using cost-plus contracts and frequently suffer from cost overruns and delays. According to defense industry sources, this is already happening with the two large classified remote sensing satellites being developed by the government. Continuing to employ cost-plus contracts to satisfy government exquisite imagery requirements while cutting fixed-price ones is increasingly untenable.
  • Commercial imaging companies support the U.S. space and geospatial industrial base and promote high-tech job creation. The industry consists of numerous American satellite manufacturers and suppliers as well as value-added service providers, and is an important contributor to the nation’s work force that will only continue to grow.

Socrates said, “Man must rise above the Earth — to the top of the atmosphere and beyond — for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” That’s exactly what these companies do. It’s why this technology is important. And that’s why the government should honor its partnership commitments to American remote sensing companies.


Mark E. Brender worked for GeoEye from 1998 to 2010. He is currently a consultant and serves as executive director of the GeoEye Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.