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Satellites Spy on Washington from on High [Slide Show]

A satellite imaging company provides clear new pix of features on Earth's surface as India mulls the role played by such imagery in the deadly Mumbai attacks
Obama, White House, GeoEye, satellite



Satellite image courtesy of GeoEye

Washington, D.C., home of the CIA, National Security Administration (NSA) and FBI, is a well-known haven for spies and surveillance. But new satellite pictures of the White House, Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial show these government agencies aren't the only ones watching and being watched.

These latest images from Dulles, Va., satellite-imaging company, GeoEye, are among the first to be collected by the GeoEye 1, a satellite launched into polar orbit on September 6 that can "see" objects on Earth as small as 16 inches (0.41 meter) in size in black-and-white mode or 64.6 inches (1.64 meters) in color. Images from the GeoEye 1, which stands 20 feet (6.1 meters) high and weighs more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kilograms), so impressed Google that the Internet search giant plans to add the satellite's high-resolution, digital color photos to Google Earth next month.

View a slide show of images taken by GeoEye satellites

GeoEye 1 blasted to its current altitude of 423 miles (681 kilometers) on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 2 rocket launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The satellite, built by Gilbert, Ariz.–based General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems orbits Earth 15 times a day, cruising at about a 16,800-mile- (27,037-kilometer-) per-hour clip.

Pretty pix, perhaps. But critics say there's also a dark side to the satellite's-eye view shots. The terrorists who attacked hotels, cafes and religious centers in Mumbai, India, killing nearly 200 and injuring scores of others late last month, reportedly used global positioning systems (GPS), Blackberries, mobile phones with multiple SIM cards (reducing the likelihood of their calls being traced), and CDs containing high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth to coordinate their strikes, the Asia Times reported last week. One option being considered by India's courts is to have Google blur images of sensitive areas in the country until the case is decided, London's Times Online reported earlier this week.

The U.S. Department of Defense is also leery of aerial intrusions and in March ordered its bases and other military installations to ban Google from taking photos of them for its Street View application. Google added the feature to Google Earth in April.

On the flip side, the Indian government is considering offering satellite imagery navigation services that rival Google Earth. The country's Indian Space Research Organization is planning to launch Bhuvan (Sanskrit for "Earth"), which would use a network of satellites to create high-res images of India accessible via the Web for free, according to London's Times Online.

GeoEye points out on its Web site that its technology is exclusively a tool for mapping and that "imagery from high-resolution systems such as the GeoEye 1 satellite is considered to be outside the threshold of personal privacy." At its current resolution, it is impossible to recognize individuals on images, the company says

View a slide show of images taken by GeoEye satellites

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