Feb 12, 2018

DURING THE COLD War, on the vast, barren flatland around Area 51's dried-up Groom Lake, the military developed a stealth spy plane code-named Project Oxcart. Project personnel were sworn to secrecy, but still, US officials worried that the Soviets would find out what they were up to. With good reason: Up above, USSR satellites were ready to spy with their on-board cameras. While Area 51 employees couldn't stop these satellites from swinging by, they did come up with a low-tech solution: moving the classified planes into sheds when they knew the satellites would pass over.

Today, that's not a feasible stealth solution. Earth orbit doesn’t just host a few Soviet spysats: More than a thousand working orbiters are out there, hundreds of those equipped with Earth-observing cameras. They are American, European, African, South American, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Russian. And nothing stops many of them from taking pictures of supersecret areas.

But the government has other ways of restricting information. The feds can limit how good commercially available images can be when taken by US companies. And it can issue a directive barring imaging over a given location. The law regulating that imaging, though, was first passed before satellite imaging really existed as an industry. And according to insiders, it’s been keeping satellites down—even as thousands more of them are set to launch in the next decade.

When the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act passed, the world was a younger, more naïve place. Aladdin was about to come out. George Sr. was president. Oh, and also the satellite-imaging industry was way different. “The biggest way that it was different was that there wasn’t really one,” says Walter Scott, the founder of DigitalGlobe and CTO of Maxar Technologies, which bought DigitalGlobe last year. The law allowed fully private companies to get a license to take data on Earth from space—and so, when it passed in 1992, Scott did.


The law—since added to, amended, and restated—still forms the legal basis for commercial remote sensing. But regulations have also accomplished the opposite, allowing the government to exercise so-called “shutter control”: If the government says to close your satellite’s eye, you have to do it.

The government has never put shutter control into effect—at least not exactly. It’s gotten around it, though. After 9/11, the feds didn't legislate the high-resolution Ikonos satellite out of taking or releasing images of Afghanistan. They simply bought exclusive rights to all of its images of the area, the only high-res ones available on the US market, making it functionally impossible for anyone else to use commercial US imagery surveil the area. Insiders call this “checkbook shutter control.”

That kind of limitation also happens on a smaller scale. “US government customers have the ability—as, actually, do some of our other customers—to say, ‘We would like you to take this image and not make this image available publicly,'” explains Scott. “It’s an exclusivity arrangement."

Then, there are the things that aren’t shutter control but do place cuffs around satellite operators. Take the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, which bans US companies from releasing their high-resolution images of Israel and the Occupied Territories. In addition, "certain licensees have some area imaging restrictions," says Tahara Dawkins, the director of the NOAA Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office. "The details are proprietary."

So while the 1992 law let Scott found his company in the first place, it and further regulations are throttling the company—and any company that wants to take HD images from space.

THAT'S NOT A theoretical problem. In 1999, DigitalGlobe wanted permission to sell images with 25-centimeter resolution—to turn, in other words, three men’s shoes into one pixel. That didn’t sit right with federal regulators, who, in 2000, gave DigitalGlobe permission to sell pictures halfthat precise: a large throw pillow could become a pixel. Even more, Scott says, “we had to impose a 24-hour delay on anything better than 82-centimeter resolution."

That time restriction went away a while ago, but it wasn’t until 2014 that DigitalGlobe finally got permission, after asking again, to release images with 25-centimeter resolution. “The reason was national security,” says Scott. “That was the extent of it, and it was not satisfying.”

"Licenses are issued with a maximum capability defined in the license," says Dawkins, about resolution limits. "Other restrictions are based on national security and/or foreign policy concerns, these too are proprietary."

Even though DigitalGlobe “won” the right to sell better images, the battle isn’t over. Today, for instance, the company also takes pictures using short-wave infrared (SWIR) radiation. It’s great for determining the composition of objects—rock outcroppings, your roof—if you’re a miner or curious about what the top of everyone’s house is made of. These images, and all of DigitalGlobe's images, are unclassified, but their distribution is still regulated. While DigitalGlobe can take SWIR shots at 3.7-meter resolution, the company can’t sell them. “We’re only allowed to make 7.5-meter available,” says Scott. So they artificially degrade the details before they sell them.


Customers say the blurred lines don’t cut it. A small rock prominence might not show up at all. And in a domestic setting, a 25-by-25-foot square contains multitudes more than a roof. “My pixel contains a piece of roof blurred in with a piece of the ground and a piece of the tree and a piece of the car sitting in the driveway,” says Scott.

Meanwhile, other countries have figured out this whole space snapshot business, too—and they don't fall under the same US regulations. “All you’ve really done is drive business to those foreign companies,” says James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center.

In fact, smart people abroad probably accelerated their technology because of the Americans’ grip on data. “When we tightened up on export control, others decided they couldn’t rely on us anymore,” says Vedda. “It was a good excuse for research groups around the world, who went to leaders and said, ‘Look, the US is closing the door on us. Give us some funding, we’ll develop our own.’”

Dawkins says the emergence of an international remote-sensing community "has not caused a licensing or regulatory process change to date" but that "NOAA has taken actions to improve our process in an effort to streamline our internal processes."

Which is a start, but probably not a finish.


“The idea that it’s possible to somehow restrict in a world where the skies are increasingly open—it’s a little bit like you’ve got 20 leaks in the dike, or 200, and you can only put your finger into one of them,” says Scott. He's frustrated. And we haven’t even gotten to the part that matters most: the life-saving part. Take this: SWIR can see through smoke, down to the fire. “If you want to map hot spots in a fire, some of them are pretty small,” says Scott, too small for the soft-focus SWIR to catch. “The problem is a small hot spot can turn into a big one,” he continues. “And it can kill you.”

But the horizon is looking brighter (and sharper). There’s a bill up for passage: the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017. It would provide for a faster licensing timeline and put the burden on the government to prove why a company shouldn’t get a license, rather than on a company for proving why it should.

That’s good for DigitalGlobe, which, at 26, is kind of a grandparent of this young industry. It’s also good for the smaller, newer companies that often make smaller satellites, which they want to launch in droves. These companies work fast; they’re startuppy; they’re not (yet) in the military-industrial imaging complex. But you should still expect that you won't see any details the government doesn't want you to see.

The not-so-friendly sky

  • SpaceX wants to launch thousands of satellites to build its own internet network—but those orbiters could have a second, secret purpose.

  • 11,943 satellites, to be exact, which isn't exactly going to help the massive space junk problem that's intensifying in Earth's orbit.

  • There are possible solutions, though: Like the self-destruct modules this company is building for small sats.