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Colorado: A space leader

Just a handful of companies around the world are competing in the emerging satellite digital photography industry.

Two of the forerunners in the field are based in the Denver area. Thornton-based Space Imaging and Longmont-based DigitalGlobe offer high-resolution images of the Earth taken from satellites and that high resolution has set them apart from other companies in the market. These two leaders have chosen the Front Range as their home for a number of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, according to spokesmen at the two firms.

Both companies have parent firms in Colorado, making it a sensible locale, but both satellite firms also had their birth in California under different names.

DigitalGlobe began as WorldView Imaging Corp. and was owned by Walter Scott, who obtained the first license for a medium-resolution satellite system. Scott realized he needed to increase the resolution of his product, so he merged the company with Boulder-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in 1995. It then became EarthWatch, but later changed its name to DigitalGlobe after two failed attempts to launch a satellite.

Space Imaging was a unit of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif. until it spun off in 1994, moving its operations to Colorado in 1995. Another Space Imaging partner is Raytheon, which has its satellite communications unit in Aurora. Aside from proximity to one of its parent companies, Space Imaging chose to build its company in Colorado for a number of reasons.

The first is Colorado’s geographic position within the United States. Space Imaging’s satellite communication cone, similar to an antenna, can detect signals from an area 2,800 miles wide — about the width of North America, Space Imaging spokesman Gary Napier said. If it were located in California, about half of the cone’s capacity would be wasted out over the ocean, he said. Kansas would be more directly in the center of the continent, but Denver offers a quality of life that the company wanted, Napier said.