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For the first time, DigitalGlobe is showing off satellite images that are so high-resolution they used to be illegal.

Previously, the U.S. government banned companies from offering commercial satellite views with a pixel resolution better than 50 centimeters (20 inches). Sharper images could be sold only to the government.

Last year, the Commerce Department gave the Colorado-based company the go-ahead to market images with 30-centimeter (12-inch) resolution — but not until this month. Now the ban has been lifted, and on Wednesday, DigitalGlobe announced the full availability of 30-centimeter pictures.

"Today marks a significant milestone for our customers, who will now benefit from a level of image quality that has never before been available from commercial satellite providers," Hyune Hand, the company's senior vice president for product marketing and management, said in a news release.

An image from Digital Globe's WorldView-3 satellite shows a neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The full-resolution version shows objects as small as 30 centimeters (12 inches).DigitalGlobe
The Shanghai World Financial Center is the focus of this WorldView-3 picture, showing Shanghai's Pudong district. The full-resolution picture shows the shadows of people walking down the street.DigitalGlobe
This WorldView-3 satellite image shows cars near the dock as well as the material sitting on the decks of ships in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.DigitalGlobe

The sharper images from DigitalGlobe's recently launched WorldView-3 satellite are likely to show up in online tools such as Google Earth and Bing Maps. DigitalGlobe said oil and gas companies should be able to make out bore holes no larger than a foot wide, while land-use planners and mapmakers will be able to trace backcountry trails, sidewalks and manholes.

The pictures aren't as sharp as the ones that spy satellites provide. They won't show you a car's license plate number, for example, but they will let you figure out what kind of car it is.

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— Alan Boyle