What a Swimming Pool Looks Like From the World’s Sharpest Commercial Satellite

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 29 2014 4:19 PM

The First Images From the World's Most Powerful Commercial Satellite

Madrid swimming pool as viewed from DigitalGlobe satellite

Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe

This month, a company called DigitalGlobe launched what was billed as the world’s sharpest commercial Earth-imaging satellite. Called WorldView-3, the $500 million gadget can snap images of the ground at a 30-centimeter resolution. That’s sharp enough to see “not only a car, but the windshield and the direction the car is going,” the company boasted in a press release—as well as home plate on a baseball diamond, or the health of agricultural crops or even individual trees.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

In fact, it’s so sharp that the company isn’t allowed to show the satellite’s full-resolution images to the public yet. The U.S. government recently eased its restrictions on high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, but the change won’t take full effect until February 2015. Still, the 40-centimeter versions you’ll see below rank among the sharpest yet seen by non-classified eyes.

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First, here’s a gif of the WorldView-3 satellite’s Aug. 13 launch, as viewed by one of the company’s other satellites:

WorldView-3 launch

Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe

And here is a Web-optimized version of one the first images DigitalGlobe has released since the launch. It shows the Madrid Airport in Spain along with the surrounding neighborhood:

DigitalGlobe

DigitalGlobe

Here's a zoomed-in view of the airport, taken from the full image above:

DigitalGlobe

DigitalGlobe

Ditto for some of the nearby homes:

DigitalGlobe

DigitalGlobe

And here's an ever closer crop on an individual swimming pool at what appears to be a little water park:

140829_FT_madrid_40cm_chip7_CU

You can read DigitalGlobe’s blog post about the new images and view full-resolution versions here.

Why does high-resolution commercial satellite imagery matter? As I explained when Google bought SkyBox, a rival Earth-imaging startup, its immediate applications range from mapping to corporate logistics to academic research, but there may be long-term uses that no one has yet foreseen.

Military satellites with even higher resolution are already in operation, but the commercialization of the technology means that spies won’t be the only ones keeping a close eye on us from above. Until now, images approaching this resolution could be captured only by aircraft, which is far more expensive (for now, at least).

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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