Entering the race to commercialize space, three young companies announced yesterday that they would launch a new venture to provide "remote sensing" satellite data services by 1986.

The venture, called Space America, would put a privately owned satellite equipped with special sensors in a polar orbit to relay information on various earth resources such as agriculture, mineral deposits and water.

Currently, the federal government's Landsat program offers a similar remote sensing service. However, recent moves by the Commerce Department to sell Landsat to private industry, plus encouragement to business to consider space resources as a profit opportunity, have prompted several companies to consider the remote sensing marketplace. At least one analyst estimates the market will be worth $1 billion by the end of the decade.

The Space America consortium includes two Bethesda-based companies--American Science & Technology and AEROS Data Corp.--as well as Space Services, Inc. of Houston. SSI, which developed this country's first privately funded and operated launch vehicle, will be the managing partner of the venture.

All three companies are less than three years old, privately owned and "actively seeking capital," according to Donald (Deke) Slayton, the former astronaut who is president of SSI. He said that launching the satellite should cost roughly $20 million and the system could be in operation "in 20 months" if capital and customers are forthcoming. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's launching of the Landsat program cost roughly $200 million.

"When we said we could produce a system for an order of magnitude less than NASA, people laughed," said Diana Josephson, president of Space America and a former official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government agency that administers much of the nation's remote sensing satellite system. "But here we are. We intend to offer an integrated end-to-end system that has low cost and reliable state-of-the-art technologies."

Space America's satellite, called AEROS for Advanced Earth Resources Observation System, will be built primarily by Honeywell Inc.'s Electro-Optics Division and Ball Aerospace Systems Division. No cost estimate was provided.

"We're not doing anything new technologically," said SSI's Slayton, "We're putting existing technology to better use."

One technical wrinkle that AEROS would have that Landsat doesn't would be "stereo" pictures: by aligning cameras at a certain angle, AEROS images could be reconstructed by computer to give them a sense of depth, which is of value to geologists and resource analysts.

However, there are serious questions as to the viability of the proposed venture. Space America said it did not have any customers signed, and said it was not willing to offer any revenue projections for its proposed service. Moreover, the market for the data is neither well-established nor particularly large at this time. One expert points out that Landsat sold only $4 million of its data tapes last year to businesses.

"This is a new market for earth resources data," says Donn Walklet of Terra-Mar, a California-based consulting firm. "It's very complex and you're dealing with unsophisticated customers. Ninety-nine percent of the potential market doesn't understand that they are the potential market."

Walklet stresses that marketing the service is vital to its success as a business. He speculates that larger and more established companies would eventually move into the market as it became more profitable. For example, he says that companies that process and package the satellite data for business, such as Control Data Corp., may form joint-ventures to create vertically integrated satellite systems similar to the one proposed by Space America.

Both the Japanese and the French are planning to launch their own remote sensing satellite systems within the next few years and several Landsat data users have expressed concern that, should Landsat not be continued and private enterprise not effectively take its place, America would be at a disadvantage in the quest to identify and acquire vital natural resources.