A Colorado firm launched a satellite yesterday to provide pictures for sale to the public that will come closer than ever before to the quality of U.S. intelligence photographs, giving a capability once reserved for superpowers to dictators and human rights groups, terrorists and television stations.

The pictures are so good, in fact, that U.S. intelligence agencies will be one of the biggest clients of Space Imaging Inc., which launched its Ikonos satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, roaring back from an unsuccessful launch in April that destroyed an identical spacecraft.

At "one-meter resolution"--far better than anything now commercially available from U.S., French, Russian or Indian companies--the satellite's digital color images can depict objects as small as three feet wide from a vantage point 423 miles in space, enabling foreign military leaders to distinguish tanks from jeeps on a highway, or jet fighters from bombers at an airfield.

"The price of admission to the spy satellite business used to be a billion dollars," said John Pike, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists. "Now, anybody with a credit card" can buy high-resolution satellite photos.

In addition to possible military uses, the photos have numerous commercial applications. TV networks may be able to do their own bomb damage assessments the next time world powers go to war. Insurance underwriters could check on the construction of backyard decks. And space policy analysts predict that satellite capabilities will continue to improve, raising concerns about privacy as photos eventually are able to capture not only backyard decks but sunbathers, too.

U.S. intelligence officials like the commercial imagery precisely because it is not secret, which means it can be freely shared with allies and international organizations, unlike the highly classified pictures from spy satellites.

"We don't see commercial imagery as a threat--we see it as contributing to the whole concept of information superiority," said Laura Snow, spokeswoman for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the intelligence agency responsible for making U.S. military maps and analyzing satellite photos.

NIMA already has set aside $580 million to buy and process commercial imagery over the next six years, helping to eliminate a backlog in mapping and to fill gaps in coverage by the nation's overburdened fleet of billion-dollar spy satellites.

While the capabilities of government satellites are secret, they are said to be able not only to distinguish tanks from jeeps, but to see whether the jeeps have license plates.

Despite NIMA's eagerness to make use of Ikonos, U.S. intelligence officials are deeply concerned about controlling high-resolution space imagery. Space Imaging is prohibited from selling its pictures to countries that sponsor terrorism and are subject to U.S. trade embargoes. In licensing the new satellite, the United States retained "shutter control" rights, allowing the government to order the private company to limit distribution or stop taking pictures in a national security crisis.

Israel also used its lobbying clout in Congress two years ago to insert a provision in a defense spending bill that prohibits U.S. firms from taking high-resolution satellite images of its territory. John C. Baker, a space policy expert at Rand Corp., said the Israeli ban is the only exception to the federal government's "policy of open skies permitting satellite imagery of the entire earth."

Baker called the advent of one-meter commercial imagery a significant step toward "global transparency" and predicted the rise of "imagery activists"--special-interest groups able to have an impact on issues such as arms control and environmental protection by using satellite photos.

"We're talking about a qualitative improvement over what's existed before in terms of using satellite imagery to observe human activity anywhere in the world," Baker said. "It's real public access."

Space Imaging is a $700 million joint venture led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. that also includes corporate investors from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Sweden. It expects Ikonos to produce its first image in three days and to start beaming back a stream of digital images for sale within 90 days.

The satellite, built by Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif., will orbit the globe 14 times a day on a sun-synchronous orbit, enabling it to take pictures of any spot on earth once every three days.

An image of one square mile will sell for $20 to $300, depending on whether it contains precise geo-coordinates, with minimum orders of $1,000 required at first, the company said.

Baker and other analysts say it remains to be seen whether a commercial market exists for these pictures, but Space Imaging's chief executive officer, John Copple, said the firm already has $15 million in orders.

Imagery Industry

The pictures for sale to the public from the Ikonos satellite will have a resolution of one meter, twice as good as Russian imagery and five times as good as Indian.

Ikonos 1 satellite

Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin

Weight: 1,600 pounds

Speed: 4 miles per second

Orbit time: 98 minutes