The historic launch of the IKONOS satellite 20 years ago was a pioneering step for commercial remote sensing
Historically, the business of satellite imagery was strictly the domain of federal governments, and only a small number of individuals around the world had access to Earth imagery captured by spacecraft. But this all began to change when President George H.W. Bush signed the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, after which private industry was authorized to operate Earth observing satellites in space and to sell high-quality commercial Earth imagery.
In 1999, Space Imaging launched IKONOS, the first in a next generation of commercial remote sensing satellites that paved the way for the future of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT).
A Historic Launch
The Lockheed Martin-built satellite went on to be owned by DigitalGlobe, now part of Maxar Technologies, which published a microsite this week dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the IKONOS launch.
Sent to orbit on Sept. 24, 1999, IKONOS weighed 1,600 pounds and was capable of collecting black and white imagery at 80-centimeter resolution and color imagery at 3.2-meter—a significant leap from the prior precedent of 5-meter commercial resolution.
A Wired article from 1999 titled, “One Giant Step for Imaging,” was cautiously optimistic following the launch: “Analysts say it’s too early to make jubilant predictions about Space Imaging’s plans for selling high resolution imagery.”
The first image taken by IKONOS was published on the front page of the New York Times on Oct. 12, 1999, and Space Imaging was collecting imagery for customers by December 1999. Ultimately, the IKONOS satellite collected more than 400 million square kilometers of Earth imagery, an amount greater than 40 times the land mass of the United States.
Images captured by IKONOS include the first satellite images of the Pyramids of Giza, images of New York City and the Pentagon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and images of widespread flooding in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
A Rich Legacy
IKONOS was decommissioned on March 31, 2015, exceeding its predicted minimum mission life of 12 years.
In its lifetime, IKONOS captured 597,802 public images. Its last photos were collected in 2014 from four different countries—Brazil, South Africa, Thailand, and the U.S. Four of its last images were shared exclusively with Mashable in 2015 for a profile on the satellite.
IKONOS paved the way for modern commercial remote sensing, which has continued to experience many important leaps forward, including the advent of small satellites and the burgeoning incorporation of machine learning and artificial intelligence to augment data analysis. Today, not only is commercial satellite imagery purchased widely by governments and industries alike, but most individuals have access to it at their fingertips thanks to advances in both satellite and mobile device technology.
Headline Image: IKONOS image of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the first ever high-resolution imagery of the Olympic Games.
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