People often are admonished to be careful what they wish for because of the potential for unintended consequences. For that same reason, similar caution is in order when it comes to what people wish against – Taiwan’s Formosat-2 Earth observing satellite being a good example.


Formerly called Republic of China Satellite-2, or Rocsat-2, this spacecraft was the subject of protests by the government of mainland China because of what industry officials say are its inherent strategic reconnaissance capabilities. The satellite can take pictures with a ground resolution of 2 meters and is capable of daily revisits of its coverage area, which includes China.


Taiwan’s National Space Program Office in 1999 awarded a German company, Dornier Satellitensysteme, the contract to build Rocsat-2. But the German government, facing objections from Beijing, denied the company the export license needed to deliver the goods, forcing Taiwan to turn to Matra Marconi Space of France. Both companies subsequently merged into what is now Astrium Satellites, but the point is that France resisted similar pressure from China and the satellite was built and launched successfully in May 2004.


Fast forward to May 12, 2008, when a massive earthquake rocked China’s Sichuan Province. In response to the deadly temblor, Beijing invoked the 1999 International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, which calls on signatories to marshal their satellite resources in support of relief and recovery operations. It was the 14th activation of the charter this year – there has since been at least one more – and one of the satellites pressed into service on China’s behalf was Formosat-2, which took pictures used by authorities to gauge the threat of flooding from a lake created by quake-induced landslides.


Imagine that.


According to the charter’s Web site, it is being activated with increasing frequency:
a record 43 times in 2007. This is an indication not only of growing membership but perhaps also of increasing awareness that satellite data is indispensable to disaster recovery and relief operations.


This is not breaking news, but it is a side of the equation that often gets lost in policy debates over so-called dual-use imaging satellites – and not just those being launched for nations in regions where tensions are high. Canada’s civilian Radarsat-2 is another example. That satellite caused such heartburn for U.S. national security officials that they denied the U.S. company selected to build the platform the necessary export license, and the work ultimately went to a European firm. Assuming it remains healthy, Radarsat-2, which finally launched late last year, almost certainly will be brought to bear in a future disaster-recovery situation.

The public safety benefits of dual-use imaging satellites are not limited to disaster response. Indeed, some of the applications that are by definition strategic and therefore sensitive – such as monitoring troop concentrations and military installations – can actually enhance safety because greater transparency can prevent the kinds of miscalculations or behavior that can lead to war.


This is not to say that high-resolution satellite imagery in the wrong hands at the wrong time is not a dangerous thing, or that there should be no restrictions – even to the extent they are enforceable – on its availability. But in any assessment of the threat posed by a given satellite program, the public safety benefits – as demonstrated in the case of Formosat-2 – need to be considered as well.