There are satellites in space right this second that can take a high-definition image of an object measuring 20 inches across. The 20 inch scale is enough to identify a shipping truck or boat, but not small enough to start identify faces. Many satellites’ images would remain accurate at an even smaller scale, but companies are forbidden by law from selling such detailed photographs to customers.
Until this week, that is, when satellite company DigitalGlobe received permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce to legally offer images at a resolution of 15.75 inches. Next year, that number will drop even further, to 9.84 inches. DigitalGlobe told the Wall Street Journal that might be enough to tell whether a car is an SUV or a compact, but not enough to make out the brand.
DigitalGlobe currently has two satellites in orbit that will immediately begin providing images at the 15.75-inch scale. It will launch a third satellite in August that is capable of capturing photographs at the 12.2-inch level.
The move could open up an additional $400 million in sales for the company, according to Reuters. DigitalGlobe already provides images to Google(S GOOG), plus governments and companies interested in tracking shipping routes, global unrest, deforestation and other large-scale developments.
The space has become more crowded in recent years as startups like Planet Labs and Nanosatisfi found cheaper and faster ways to get large constellations of satellites into orbit. While Planet Labs relies on many satellites to provide images at the 3- to 5-meter scale, DigitalGlobe uses just a few satellites to capture high-definition imagery.