In recent years, the commercial remote sensing industry has been lobbying the federal government to change rules that prevented companies from selling imagery with resolutions sharper than 50 centimeters per pixel. DigitalGlobe in particular argued that its current and planned satellites could already provide imagery with better resolutions than that, and that the capabilities of foreign systems not subject to US resolution limits could it make less competitive in the commercial market. It appears that, this week, DigitalGlobe got its wish.
The company announced Wednesday that it received notice from the Commerce Department that the agency had approved revised resolution limits for existing and future spacecraft. The company’s current satellites will, effective immediately, be able to sell images as sharp as technically possible by them: 41-centimeter resolution for GeoEye-1 and 46 centimeters for WorldView-2. Imagery from the company’s WorldView-3 satellite, slated for launch in August, can be sold at resolutions of as sharp as 25 centimeters starting six months after it’s declared operational. (The spacecraft is capable of 31-centimeter imagery, according to the company.) GeoEye-2, a satellite developed for GeoEye prior to its acquisition by DigitalGlobe, will also be able to provide similarly sharp imagery when it’s launched at an unspecified future date.
“Our customers will immediately realize the benefits of this updated regulation, as for the first time, we will be able to make our very best imagery available to the commercial market,” DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tarr said in a company statement announcing the revised resolution limits. He also thanked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and officials from the Departments of Defense and State, and the intelligence community, for “this forward-leaning change to our nation’s policy.”
Curiously, those officials are silent about the change. The Commerce Department, which regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, made no public announcement of the change, nor did other administration officials. It’s thus not clear if the revised resolution limits apply only to DigitalGlobe or to any US-licensed satellite company. In practice, no other company licensed by the US government is operating or developing satellites that could run afoul of the earlier 50-centimeter limit. Skybox Imaging, the company that Google announced Tuesday it was acquiring for $500 million, can provide images as sharp as 90 centimeters, according to company literature.
Earlier this year, some government officials signaled a willingness to accept revised resolution limits for commercial remote sensing satellites. At a conference in April, both Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director Letitia Long said the intelligence community supported changes to allow companies to sell higher-resolution satellite imagery.