Imaging program to offer natural resources snapshot

The White House has announced a plan for a long-term land-imaging program that would strengthen the country's leadership in moderate-resolution, satellite-based imagery. Unlike defense-oriented high-resolution imagery, it is adept at monitoring the world's natural resources.

A global record of such land-imaging is important for managing territorial possessions and agricultural resources, and for tracking global land change, according to a report commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and released Tuesday.

"While U.S. policies have led to robust and growing markets for high-resolution aerial and satellite land-imaging, attempts to foster the commercial development of moderate-resolution satellites have not succeeded," the report states.

Today's Internet applications, like Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth, have become essential tools in everyday life. The report notes that with the Internet transforming how data about the Earth's surface is manipulated, such imagery would help better understand and regulate societal affairs upon the surface.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. Landsat satellites have provided moderate-resolution data for every level of government in the United States and other countries.

But Landsat 7 was the last satellite launched -- in 1999. Landsat 5, launched in 1984, and Landsat 7 have suffered a series of technical problems that either restrict coverage of the entire Earth or limit the quality of the satellite data. A replacement satellite is not scheduled to launch until 2011 at the earliest. And it is expected that both satellites will need to be decommissioned by 2010.

The newly unveiled strategy seeks to ensure U.S. leadership in moderate-resolution, satellite-based imagery beyond the end of the decade. The overhaul also would deem the Interior Department as the permanent overseer of the domain. The United States has never had a program purely focused on moderate-resolution land-imaging capability.

Moderate-resolution satellites are critical for detecting the ramifications of global climate variability and change, population growth and movement, and changes in land-use practices, the report states.

Google spokeswoman Megan Quinn said, "We're pleased to see the government's continued support of Landsat." The company uses Landsat data for Google Earth's 15-meter base imagery.

Robert Snow, a director at the navigation system manufacturer Magellan, said that while the company is not involved with land-imaging, the administration's move will benefit its customers who load Google Earth images into Magellan products.

Steve Kopp, a program manager at the geographic information system software vendor ESRI, said the development also is good news for consumers who analyze moderate-resolution images with ESRI applications. The continuity of the program is important because "it's a 30-year record" of the environment, Kopp said. Historically, the program has been in limbo, flip-flopping between the commercial sector and government. "Now it has a home."

In recent years, high-resolution satellite imagery has received more attention from the government because of its defense and homeland security applications, he said. "It feels as if there's now again a long-term commitment to moderate-resolution remote sensing."

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