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WorldView-3 Satellite Will Upgrade Google’s Earth Images

DigitalGlobe's WorldView-3 satellite, due for launch on Wednesday from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base atop an Atlas 5 rocket, should provide pictures of Earth that are twice as sharp as the current standard — and that could generate a new round of buzz about pictures of the planet. Google, Microsoft and other online mapmakers are among DigitalGlobe's best-known clients for Earth imagery. The RV-sized WorldView-3 satellite is capable of 30-centimeter (1-foot) black-and-white resolution, which beats the 50-centimeter resolution for pictures from WorldView-2. DigitalGlobe had to get clearance from the federal government to sell the sharper images to civilians.

The pictures won't be good enough to reveal license plates, but "we can tell you whether it's a truck, or an SUV or a regular car," Kumar Navulur, DigitalGlobe's director of next-generation products, told NBC News. Other applications include multispectral imaging for agricultural or urban planning, and cloud-piercing infrared views for tracking fires. You can watch the launch online at 2:30 p.m. ET, courtesy of United Launch Alliance, but you'll have to wait until 2015 for the best satellite images.

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— Alan Boyle