A Boeing Delta 2 rocket successfully launched WorldView-1, the first of a new generation of U.S. government-financed but privately owned imaging satellites, Sept. 18 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Capable of distinguishing ground objects or features as small as 50 centimeters across, WorldView-1, owned by DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.,

is the highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite launched to date.

WorldView-1 now will undergo testing and is expected to begin sending imagery back to Earth in about a month, DigitalGlobe spokesman Chuck Herring said. Built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., the satellite is designed to operate for seven years, he said.

WorldView-1 is one of two satellites whose development was financed in part by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which is responsible for analyzing and distributing geospatial data for the U.S. military and intelligence community. Under a program known as NextView, the NGA awarded imagery-service contracts to DigitalGlobe and rival GeoEye of Dulles, Va., worth about $500 million apiece. The deals included upfront funding for the new satellites, whose imagery also will be available for commercial sale, albeit with some restrictions.

is the follow-on to the NGA’sClearView contracting vehicle, under which the agency buys imagery from the companies’ existing, less-capable imaging satellites. DigitalGlobe’sQuickBird and GeoEye’sIkonos satellites were built and launched exclusively with private funding.

, built by Ball and launched in 2001, collects black-and-white imagery with 61-centimeter resolution and multispectral, or color, imagery with 2.5-meter resolution. The satellite is expected to last until the end of 2009, when it will run out of fuel and burn up as it re-enters the atmosphere.

WorldView-1 will be the highest-resolution commercial satellite in orbit until GeoEye’s GeoEye-1

, built with NextView funding, is launched in early 2008. GeoEye-1 will be capable of collecting black-and-white imagery with 41-centimeter resolution as well as multispectral imagery.

“We are excited about and eagerly await delivery of the first new imagery,” U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, the NGA’s director, said in a statement released Sept. 18. “With the improved resolution, agility and capacity of the WorldView-1 satellite, we anticipate increasing the use of commercial imagery to satisfy our geospatial production requirements.”

is planning to launch another imaging satellite exclusively with private funding. WorldView-2 will be similar in resolution to WorldView-1 but also will be able to collect multispectral imagery in eight bands. WorldView-2 also is being built by Ball, with completion expected by the end of 2008.