Two weeks ago today, a satellite whirled above Washington on its way around the earth and shot photographs from 400 miles up that could change the way some people do business.
The images are a freeze-frame of the city and the area around it at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 30. They can show you how many vehicles were on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Navy Memorial, the position of a plane on a Reagan National Airport runway and the shadow of the Jefferson Memorial.
The pictures were taken by the Ikonos satellite, launched by Denver-based Space Imaging Inc., which eventually will provide images to the public from around the world that come closer than ever before to the quality of U.S. intelligence photographs.
The satellite went up from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California last month, and the first black-and-white images from its orbit were released this week. The company plans to start selling worldwide color photos around the end of the year.
The images offer "one-meter resolution," meaning that an object just over three feet wide looks like a small dot. It will pass over any given spot every three days.
"You can count cars in a parking lot and boats in Southwest harbor," said Mark Brender, the company's director of Washington operations. "You can see individual trees. You cannot see or recognize people."
(For now. At least two other companies hope to launch their own satellites and offer high-resolution imagery to the public, possibly at a higher level of detail.)
Space Imaging Inc. is not looking for business at the moment from people who want photos of their own rooftops or back yards; those are often available from aerial photography companies. The minimum order is $1,000, and the company hopes for clients such as insurance companies, engineering firms and local planning departments.
U.S. intelligence agencies are expected to become big buyers, because the unclassified satellite photo information can be shared with other governments, although Space Imaging will be banned from selling its images to countries that sponsor terrorism or are subject to U.S. trade embargoes.
The images could also be useful to public-policy groups that want to raise alarms about issues such as oil spills or hidden nuclear facilities overseas, according to John Pike, an intelligence expert at the American Federation of Scientists.
"It's right up there with the Internet and fax-blast and direct mail in being an innovation in policy communication," he said.
Pike said a search for satellite images also could become a routine part of criminal investigations, if the timing is right. Investigators won't be able to read a license plate, he said, but they could tell whether a dark-colored pickup truck was present at the murder scene when the crime occurred.
CAPTION: Details of buildings and monuments and their shadows are visible in a photograph taken 400 miles above Washington on the morning of Sept. 30.