Military lets satellite contract expire; war images now availab

Saturday, February 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Bomb-blackened runways and shattered aircraft scar what's left of Kandahar's airfield in one satellite image. The walls and towers of the fortress prison at Mazar-e-Sharif -- where a CIA officer was killed -- dominate the landscape in another.

Still other photos provide views from orbit of the mountains where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders were thought to be hiding.

Commercial satellite images of the war in Afghanistan are now available to the public. The military has let expire its contract providing exclusive use of the commercial Ikonos satellite when it was over Afghanistan.

Ikonos images can distinguish ground features roughly three feet in size.

The newly available images also provide insight to where U.S. intelligence was looking during the war. Ikonos doesn't have the eagle eyes of U.S. spy satellites, which are thought to be able to distinguish objects as small as four or five inches. But it aided the military in mapping, mission planning and in at least one case the viewing of bomb damage, officials said.

An Oct. 10 picture, provided to The Associated Press by Ikonos' operator, Denver-based Space Imaging, Inc., shows the blasted remains of the airfield at Kandahar. The blackened craters from more than a dozen U.S. bomb strikes are visible -- several in an almost perfect line along the center of the main runway. The Taliban's jet fighters -- visible in an older image also provided by Space Imaging -- are gone.

One picture of the Tora Bora region -- where bin Laden is believed to have hidden for part of the war -- was taken Sept. 21, before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan started.

In the closing days of December, Ikonos appears to have been part of the hunt for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the missing Taliban leader. The satellite captured images of roads, mountains and villages south and east of Baghran, the town where officials believed Omar was hiding.

The Ikonos images could also be supplied to U.S. allies, because they did not betray any secret capability of American spy satellites, officials said.

Space Imaging CEO John Copple said Friday he expects the military to turn to commercial satellites again in future wars.

"Commercial imagery can be used in a conflict as a surge capability" -- increasing the range of pictures available to war planners, he said. U.S. spy satellites were freed to concentrate on high-priority targets requiring highly detailed images, company and military officials said.

$8.5 million deal

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a military intelligence agency that analyzes satellite photos and makes maps, paid about $8.5 million for the images and two months of exclusive access to Ikonos while it was over Afghanistan. NIMA spokesman David Burpee said the agency also purchased additional Ikonos images outside the exclusive-access agreement.

Last month, the military declined to continue paying for exclusive rights to almost all of the pictures, freeing the company to sell them. Lower-resolution thumbnails of them can be viewed for free on the company's Web site; the full color images are available for purchase.

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