IRA FLATOW, host:
For the rest of the hour, a new eye in the sky. That's what we used to call spy satellites in the old days. But you know, we don't call them spying much because we know they're up there, and they're looking at us. It's going to be launched next week. It's called the GeoEye-1, and it carries the highest resolution civilian - it's a civilian camera that has ever been launched, and it can make out objects on the ground just 16 inches across as it zips by a 400 miles overhead. Now, how - what's that 16 inches? Well, that's enough resolution to make out home plate on a baseball field from space. And if you use Google maps to see satellite pictures of your neighborhood or your destination, there's a good chance, you'll be seeing the images from this new satellite because Google has signed the deal to use the pictures. Joining me now to talk about the launch and why it's important is Mark Brender. He is vice president of marketing and communication for GeoEye that's based in Dulles, Virginia. Welcome to the program.
Mr. MARK BRENDER (Vice President, Marketing and Communication for GeoEye-1): Good day.
FLATOW: So, how soon can we see these photos on Google?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, we'll be launching our GeoEye-1 satellite, September fourth at 2:50pm Eastern Daylight Time and when everything is successful after the satellites does its check out and calibration, we expect to have imagery available for sale from GeoEye-1 in the late October time frame.
FLATOW: So, let's talk about the process. You mean, I can go to a website or order a picture from you that I'd like to see?
Mr. BRENDER: It's very simple. All you got to do is go to our website, geoeye.com or call customer service, and we can take your order for satellite imagery over any location on the surface of the planet.
FLATOW: Now, can I - say hey, you know I'm going to be out in my backyard on Christmas, can you fly the satellite over it then and take a picture of my Christmas tree?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, you know, we hate physics, but we're dictate it in orbit by what physics requires. So, we're in a polar orbit. So, we go over the North Pole, under the South Pole and the Earth rotates underneath us. So, we are only overhead once any given location, about once every three days.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: And certainly, we can't see at night and we're overhead around 10:30 or 11 in the morning. So, it's not a look down, stare down, see all, all the time satellite. It's a low-Earth orbit satellite that zips around the Earth very fast. We go from the North Pole, under the South Pole, back to the North Pole in 98 minutes.
Mr. BRENDER: And as we're moving that fast, we could look down and with its powerful camera, be able to see objects from the ground as small as 16 inches in size. However, due to U.S. government licensing restrictions, we will make imagery available for sale at half meter ground resolution.
FLATOW: So, half meter is - that's like once inch difference, isn't it?
Mr. BRENDER: It's not very much difference at all as your listeners will probably know. But we are required by the federal government to re-sample our imagery to half meter ground resolution. Even though we can collect it at the higher resolution...
FLATOW: So, you see, you have to blur it a little bit.
Mr. BRENDER: Well, we don't blur it because it's still top quality imagery, but it is re-sampled.
FLATOW: Can you get some good pictures of the polar ice melting in the North Pole there?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, on our website, we've got some terrific pictures of Bear Glacier in Alaska.
Mr. BRENDER: And that glacier, we can manage and map over time and we should be able to see changes in the glacier and changes anywhere on the Earth due to climate change and global warming.
FLATOW: So, if you're doing like a science fair project, do a school project and you want to follow a glacier melting, we can ask you to keep taking pictures of that?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, keep in mind, we are traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. We are a public company, and we are in business. So, we'll be happy to take orders. But we're not giving away our imagery for free. However, let me qualify this, we do have a GeoEye Foundation and we can provide a limited amount of imagery from our archive.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: For students who need imagery for specific research purposes.
FLATOW: Well, let's talk dollars and cents now. What would you - what do you charge normally for - in your business to take these pictures?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, we have so far, from our Iconos satellite which is the world's first high resolution commercial Earth imaging satellite. We have about 300 million square kilometers of the Earth in archive and imagery from the Iconos satellite from our archive is as cheap as eight dollars a square kilometer with a minimum order of 50 square kilometers. So that's 400 dollars or so.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: For an area that covers 10 by 10, that's 100 square kilometers.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. And so who will, who would you think you will be your biggest customers?
Mr. BRENDER: Well, our biggest single customer - and they comprised 55 percent of our revenues. Our revenues last year were 184 million is The National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency. And that is a satellite imaging and mapping arm of the Pentagon and the intelligence community. So they're our single biggest customer. Other customers that regularly use our imagery and are look forward - looking forward to the launch of GeoEye-1 next week are companies in the oil and gas business.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: And the insurance business. State and local government for mapping and planning and zoning because one of the most important things about the satellite imagery beside its great resolution is all map accurate. So because there is GPS in the satellite itself, every image the satellite takes, every point on the ground, has an associated latitude and longitude.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: So you can see why Google Earth would be interested in such technology. No longer - not only do you get the best resolution, but the best mapping accuracy, and maps have been around since 2300 B.C. when the Babylonians etched the lay of the land on clay tablets, and we've been making improvements ever since then. And this is the next huge improvement and our ability to see and map the planet.
FLATOW: I'm talking with Mark Brender of GeoEye on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. One would think that the Pentagon with all the billions it's spends on satellites wouldn't have to farm out the images to you to take them for them.
Mr. BRENDER: Well, it's a very good question. But the good thing about commercial satellite imagery is commercial. So our imagery is unclassified.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: So it can be easily shared with allies and coalition partners. In that way, the government doesn't have to task their intelligence collections satellites or what you referred to earlier as spy satellites, they don't have to task those systems in order to do sort of routine mapping missions. They can use their systems for higher priority, more time-critical imaging needs and kind of put the mapping mission onto our backs.
FLATOW: I see. Let me see if we can get a quick question in. Gary in Ashville, Tennessee. Hi, Gary.
GARY (Caller): Hi, how are you?
FLATOW: Hi there.
GARY: I wanted to ask your guest, I think I already know the answer but are they limited - in other words, if I called and ordered the imagery of Area 51, that would - would that be possible?
Dr. BRENDER: Absolutely. I think we have that imagery on our website actually. There's no area of the world that we cannot image. So, that includes any area over the U.S. and because we operate in non-sovereign space, we're outside the nation's air space. And so we have a license from the U.S. government and we can image virtually any location on the surface of the planet. However, there is a provision in our license that says if there's a threat to national security or foreign policy concern, the U.S. government can limit our imaging. But to date, they've never done it.
FLATOW: And they don't think Area 51 falls in that purview. That's cool. OK. How long a lead time do we need if we want to order something or if somebody wants to order, you know, maps from you, how long a lead time does that require?
Dr. BRENDER: Well, you know, for a - for an imagery that's needed quickly for a customer especially if there's a tsunami or a disaster...
FLATOW: There's a hurricane headed towards, you know, the Gulf.
Mr. BRENDER: And so, we can very quickly reprogram the satellite to have it shoot wherever we want.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: I remember when the shuttle exploded over Texas some years ago...
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Mr. BRENDER: We quickly re-tasked our Iconos satellite in 10 minutes and were collecting imagery over the area where the debris fell in eastern Texas.
FLATOW: Wow. And - well that would be for a special occasion.
Mr. BRENDER: So, special occasions, we can quickly task. But normally, we take orders and within - especially over the U.S., it's easier. We can get imagery delivered to customers in a couple of weeks.
FLATOW: And Google has the rights for any web images, is that correct?
Mr. BRENDER: Correct. Google is interested, as you know, it collecting the highest quality commercial satellite imagery available. And as a symbol of this commitment, we've got a contract with them, and they've actually agreed to put their logo on the first stage of the rocket which is now sitting out at Vandenberg Air Force Base which is about two or three hour drive north of Los Angeles.
FLATOW: Somebody painting the logo on as we speak.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BRENDER: Actually, it's a decal.
FLATOW: Decal, that's what I thought. Yeah. I've made some of those rockets on little smaller scale but I've - two or three of those together...
Mr. BRENDER: Well, we're going up on a Boeing Delta Two and it's a 12-story tall rocket. It's reliability is 98.5 percent. So, we've got a great team put together in the launch vehicle, in the satellite itself, the GeoEye-1 satellite tips the scales at 4300 pounds. It was built by General Dynamics, Advance Information Systems Division outside of Phoenix, Arizona and the very sophisticated camera or sensor that's in the satellite is built by ITT Corporation in Rochester, New York.
FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Mark.
Mr. BRENDER: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: And we'll be watching for those images. Mark Brender is a vice president of marketing and communications for GeoEye based in Dallas, Virginia. Greg Smith composed our theme music and we had help today from NPR librarian, Kee Malesky. Surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com. We got some great new videos up there this week. We got that fly video. Go to the fly, we'll knock you out. And you see the fly flying around and how to swat it. It's a terrific video and also we're podcasting and blogging there and I'm looking for some of your videos. Send them to us. Have a great and safe holiday weekend. Great Labor Day. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.