Warming relations with Russia may make Cold War novels passe, but they've created a hot new market for what was once strictly spy technology.
Want to see the bird's eye view of downtown Baghdad? How about Washington, D.C.? How about your own house? Russian satellite spy photos with detail down to two meters can soon be yours - and you don't need to use uranium or weapons as currency to pay for them. North Carolina-based Aerial Images will soon be selling pictures for $7.95.Just looking at an image of Washington, D.C., can bring a nostalgic chill as you imagine how the picture was used when it was taken in 1988. Diagonal roads leading to the White House and Capitol look like X marks identifying a target.
On the other hand, the scene may simply lead viewers to see how many landmarks they can identify from previous visits to the capital city.
People who have had a peek at what Aerial Images offers are finding any number of uses for the services: settling land disputes, preparing for a local zoning hearing, developing a marketing or delivery route map, showing a homebuyer what neighborhood amenities surround a house, illustrating the route to a birthday party -
Your ninth-grader's school report on Egypt? Why not include a knockout photo of the pyramids. Then there are those familiar formations at Arches or that favorite canyon at Lake Powell that doesn't show well on the map.
"When people look (at the pictures), their first reaction is, `Hey, I can do this with it,' or `Hey, I can do that with it,' " said Aerial Images CEO John T. Hoffman.
He doesn't hesitate to say his emerging business owes it all to the Cold War. "We're very proud of the fact that we have been instrumental in converting a military technology to a useful consumer product. This is your ultimate swords-to-plowshares technology leap."
Aerial Images plans to launch its service June 24 on a Web site at (www.terraserver.com). The site currently has several sample images, including Egypt, Paris, Atlanta, Dallas and downtown Bangkok.
There are several reasons Aerial Images chose Russian partners for the project - some of them fairly obvious.
"We pursued the Russian area because we had good information (that indicated) they'd been looking at us for quite a while," Hoffman said.
The United States has camera-clicking satellites, too, and a number of images have been declassified. But "the U.S. was too focused on areas of military interest . . . great if you wanted pictures of Siberian air force bases, but that obviously doesn't help a tax mapper in North Carolina," Hoffman said. Soviets were also better at photographing broad areas, he said, with each picture covering an area of 100 by 25 miles.
Aerial Images also wants to include new pictures in its offering, which requires an ongoing relationship with a country that has both rockets and satellites.
The Russians have made an art form of using foreign money - commercial and private - to help subsidize their science and military budgets. Want to fly a MiG? No problem, if you have enough cash. They'll use the money to buy fuel for training. Travel to the North Pole? Charter an icebreaker from the Russian naval fleet.
Hoffman characterizes his company's partnership with Russia as almost a patriotic gesture.
"There's a strong emphasis in our government right now about doing things to help preserve Russian science," Hoffman said. "In the early '90s, there was a real flight of Russian science from Russia. Russia's space agency is an organization that can do a lot of good."
Aerial Images' partner is Sovinformsputnik, the non-military branch of the Russian Space Agency. The commercial venture involves restoring and digitizing existing satellite photos dating back to 1988 and financing rocket-launched satellite missions to take new images.
A 1994 executive order from the White House restricts the resolution of commercially available satellite photos to one meter. That means a picture of your house would reveal whether it was taken before or after you put that swamp cooler on the roof but you likely couldn't tell whether the cover was on.
Aerial Images has become the poster child of the executive order, Hoffman said, though other enterprises using variations of satellite imaging technology will also be competing.
Aerial Images is covering about half of the $60 million cost of new rocket launches. When the pictures go on sale, the partners will split the revenues.
Aerial Images' first joint-venture satellite was launched with a number of other satellites in February aboard a Russian SL-4 Soyuz rocket. The satellite shot pictures of the Southern United States and returned to Earth April 6.
Business partners Kodak and Microsoft got the film digitized and put on the Web site. The plan is to include images from that mission when the Terra Server site launches next month.
The next satellite launch is planned for November. It'll take four flights to cover the continental United States and the major population centers of Europe.