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Satellite imagery assists relief effort

Outside Denver, a large dish follows a satellite belonging to Space Imaging — one of several commercial satellite companies constantly photographing the Earth. They fly at 17,000 miles an hour about 400 miles above the Earth — orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes.

Inside a nearly windowless building 1,600 miles away in Washington, D.C., sits Space Imaging's biggest customer — the Pentagon's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. In terms of secrecy, it ranks right up there with the CIA.

To give you an idea of the security involved here, a wide-open office space with cubicles was turned into a dark tunnel to allow NBC News to pass through.

Using the same techniques employed to hunt weapons and terrorists, experts study photos of the tsunami-impacted region. They use commercial satellite imagery instead of government spy satellites so the information can be shared without compromising U.S. national security. While we were there, analysts viewed hard-hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia — not looking for what's left, but what's gone: specifically roads and bridges.

“The landscape has changed since this disaster, so a map that was made a year ago or a month ago is not going to be valid anymore,” says satellite imagery analyst Michelle Herman.

Herman begins making a new map of the area, using the satellite image, marking closed roads in green and a washed-out bridge with a yellow dot. Anyone wanting to bring relief supplies to this area must plan on using a helicopter, not a truck. She can also point out where the chopper should not land.

“This area here, you got standing water with debris floating in it,” says Herman.

The new map — accurate to a resolution of one square meter — can be delivered instantly over the Internet.

For international relief agencies trying to rush in desperately-needed supplies, such information could save time and lives. And it's all thanks to a top secret agency and a little help from above.