Independent Experts Can Now Get Sharper Satellite Images of North Korea, Iran

A DigitalGlobe satellite image shows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The commercial satellite company recently received U.S. government permission to sell its highest-resolution photographs to clients.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
June 16, 2014, 11:02 a.m.

In­de­pend­ent non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts can now get im­ages of­fer­ing much great­er de­tail about Ir­an’s and North Korea’s above-ground nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies.

Last week, the satel­lite com­pany Di­git­al­Globe an­nounced the U.S. Com­merce De­part­ment had ap­proved a long-stand­ing li­cense re­quest to sell its highest-avail­able res­ol­u­tion pho­to­graphs to com­mer­cial cli­ents. Pre­vi­ously, the U.S. gov­ern­ment had for­bid­den the sale of im­ages with a res­ol­u­tion bet­ter than 50 cen­ti­meters out of con­cern that do­ing so would hand an im­port­ant in­tel­li­gence tool to ad­versar­ies.

“We’re very happy” about the de­cision, said Ser­ena Kelle­her-Ver­gantini, a re­search ana­lyst with the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity, adding that she planned to pur­chase the new im­ages “as soon as they are avail­able.”

One of the best tools in­de­pend­ent ex­perts have for as­sess­ing the status of nuc­le­ar and mis­sile pro­grams in coun­tries like Ir­an and North Korea is ana­lyz­ing satel­lite pho­to­graphs of their weapon sites. However, the res­ol­u­tion of avail­able pho­to­graphs to date has meant that im­age ex­perts fre­quently must hedge their pro­nounce­ments, of­fer­ing a num­ber of pos­sible scen­ari­os that could ex­plain the mean­ing be­hind vari­ous blurred ob­jects.

“With closer res­ol­u­tion, you are cap­able of dis­tin­guish­ing items between each oth­er,” Kelle­her-Ver­gantini said, not­ing that one of her big chal­lenges with the cur­rently avail­able com­mer­cial satel­lite im­agery is try­ing to dis­tin­guish ve­get­a­tion from black vehicles.

Also of­ten dif­fi­cult to dis­cern are vent­il­a­tion sys­tems on nuc­le­ar plants, said the Wash­ing­ton-based ana­lyst.

With cur­rently avail­able im­ages “you can see build­ings and de­term­ine their sizes and stuff … with pretty high cer­tainty,” she said in a Fri­day phone in­ter­view. “But any­thing smal­ler, we can see cars but you’re nev­er cap­able of de­term­in­ing what type of car it is.”

An­oth­er out­fit that re­lies heav­ily on satel­lite im­ages for its ana­lys­is of North Korea’s nuc­le­ar and mis­sile pro­grams is the ex­pert web­site 38 North.

Joel Wit,  who ed­its the site, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire he thinks hav­ing ac­cess to high­er-res­ol­u­tion im­ages will “help im­prove ana­lys­is,” but that it would help more if Di­git­al­Globe were to sell a great­er quant­ity of im­ages taken of key weapon sites. “The [cur­rent] cov­er­age is very spotty. Some­times you can go for weeks without any pic­tures.”

Di­git­al­Globe sought au­thor­iz­a­tion to sell im­ages with a high­er res­ol­u­tion out of a de­sire to pro­tect the com­pany’s mar­ket share at a time when for­eign-owned com­pan­ies are pre­par­ing to launch their own ad­vanced ima­ging satel­lites, ac­cord­ing to Space­Flight­Now.

Di­git­al­Globe presently has four op­er­at­ing satel­lites; a fifth, World­View 3, is ex­pec­ted to launch in mid-Au­gust. The Col­or­ado-based com­pany’s up­dated li­cense al­lows it to im­me­di­ately be­gin selling im­ages with a res­ol­u­tion of 40 cen­ti­meters. Once World­View 3 be­gins trans­mit­ting, the com­pany will be able to sell pho­to­graphs with a 31-cen­ti­meter res­ol­u­tion, ac­cord­ing to Turn­er Brin­ton, Di­git­al­Globe spokes­man.

The new li­cense per­mits the sale of im­ages with a res­ol­u­tion of up to 25 cen­ti­meters, but Brin­ton said in or­der to provide that kind of de­tail, the com­pany would need to lower the planned or­bit­ing alti­tude of the World­view 3 satel­lite — something it does not have any im­me­di­ate plans to do.

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