NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Satellites Go Commercial

April 13, 2000

The first commercial observation satellite was launched less than two years ago. But experts expect that over the next decade more than 1,000 satellites will be launched -- the vast majority of them commercial.

The potential benefits to private enterprise are enormous:

  • Commercial satellites able to observe features as small as one meter can be used in agriculture, environmental monitoring, forestry management, municipal planning, map-making, disaster relief, flood disaster mitigation, forest-fire fighting and energy exploration.
  • Orbiting as high as 400 miles up, they can tell farmers where to spray chemicals, winemakers when grapes have reached maximal ripeness, and businesses and emergency services where to locate.
  • Since 1995, the U.S. market for satellite imagery has grown from about $315 million to $2 billion -- driven largely by the increasing resolution available to the commercial market.
  • Earth orbit is now home to more than 500 satellites -- 220 owned by the U.S.

Yet as satellite technology becomes more affordable and available, it also becomes more accessible to potential enemies -- a concern policy-makers have yet to deal with. How does one go about balancing commercial interests with national security? "When some of these high-resolution pictures were published recently, they sent shudders through the national security community," says Commerce Department official Gary Bachula.

"We're going to have accurate pictures of the surface of the Earth available to anyone who wants them," Bachula adds. "That's a fact we're going to have to get used to."

Source: John Yaukey (Gannett News Service), "Bird's-Eye View of the World Unnerves Governments," USA Today, April 13, 2000.


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