Landsat to be privatised, once more?

Remote sensing, once the domain of researchers seeking hitherto undiscovered potato fields, lost cities and the intricacies of drainage patterns, entered the commercial domain in a big way about a decade ago.  As well as giving lugubrious views of factories reputed to be manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, the aftermath of their bombing and that of villages alleged to harbour agents of the “axis of evil”, remote sensing helps find physical resources, spots farmers who fraudulently claim subsidies for non-existent crops and is used to site cell-phone transmitter networks.  There are now several orbiting systems launched by commercial outfits that offer pin sharp and spectrally revealing information, at a cost.  The workhorse of remote sensing since 1972 has been the US Landsat series.  Following the addition of the Thematic Mapper in 1984, pressure grew for Landsat’s privatization in 1988.  Prices jumped tenfold, to the horror of researchers, and the venture became uneconomic because of insufficient private-sector interest.  Landsat 7, which carries an Enhanced Thematic Mapper, made orbit in 1999, and is administered by the US Geological Survey.  Landsat-7 ETM data sell at $600 per scene, which is a bargain.  Such has been the demand for data that US authorities are once more trying to shed responsibility for data provision to private hands, by asking for bids to develop, launch and market the next Landsat.  Prices will once again leap to profitable levels.  The joint US-Japan ASTER system aboard the ostensibly research-oriented Terra satellite rivals Landsat ETM in quality, and many scientists have been trying out the data.  Again, to their disquiet, pressure reputedly from the Japanese partners has resulted in once free data being assigned a price of $55 per scene

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