When the Soviet Union Sold Satellite Photos

Given the Soviet Union’s reputation as tight-fisted with even mundane information, it may come as a surprise that there was a time when it sold satellite imagery internationally. The moment was the late 1980s, and the reason was hard currency.

Though the first steps into the commercial satellite imagery market had begun in the United States with the LANDSAT program, the US government was wary of letting just anyone buy images made in orbit. The Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984 required any US operator to have a license from the Department of Commerce and comply with any national security requirements. Under these circumstances, the appearance of ten-meter resolution imagery (three times better than LANDSAT) from France’s SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) satellite in 1986 was a bombshell. Within a year, SPOT was selling $23 million in imagery annually and had captured more than 60% of the commercial market. That included images of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident, which became the first commercial satellite imagery to be shown on television.

Seventeen months after the launch of SPOT-1, the Soviet Union entered the imagery market. Taken from Soviet space stations and a series of earth-sensing photography satellites (similar to Soviet spy satellites but not as sophisticated), the images were sold by Soyuzkarta – a newly-created organization – and the photographs would have resolution as high as five meters – twice what SPOT was offering. The next year, the Soviets added electro-optical and radar images, though they were sold by a different organization, Glavkosmos.

The CIA’s judgement on the program, at least according to a research paper made available by the National Security Archive, was one of skepticism. Yes, the Soviets were offering twice the spatial resolution of the best alternative on the market, but in almost every other way they were behind the curve. The images were on physical film, instead of being digital. They were returned to earth by a parachute canister, not transmitted immediately, so they were slower to be received by the client. Orbits were sub-optimal for overhead imagery. In some ways, the Soviet service was not just inferior but downright obsolete: some radar tracks that were sold appeared to have been hand-spliced together, and delivery of the images on a computer-compatible tape required the client to provide the tape. As a result, the CIA estimated that between 1987 and 1990 the Soviets had sold only $5–8 million of imagery, or roughly 5–13% of the worldwide market.

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