The U.S. government has lifted a long-standing restriction that meant companies like Google and Microsoft didn't have access to the most accurate pictures taken by imaging satellites.
Until this week, satellite operators like DigitalGlobe were prevented by law from selling images to foreign or commercial organizations in which features smaller than 50 centimeters were visible. The restriction was meant to ensure that foreign powers didn't get access to satellite images that were too good.
But now that's changed. DigitalGlobe said it has received approval from the U.S. Department of Commerce to sell sharper images to its clients.
That immediately unlocks pictures from its GeoEye-1 satellite, with a resolution of 41 centimeters, and Worldview-2 satellite, at 46 centimeters, but much better pictures will soon be available.
The company's Worldview-3 satellite can see features as small as 31 centimeters and is due for launch in mid-August from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The government has said DigitalGlobe can sell high-resolution images from that satellite six months after it enters operation, which would make them available sometime in the first half of 2015.
The sharper images will mean more than just better quality online satellite pictures. Companies like Google and Nokia automatically process such images to help build accurate online maps and there is a host of uses outside of the Internet industry including agriculture, disaster relief, mining, transportation and civil engineering.
The announcement came in the same week that Google said it would buy satellite imaging start-up SkyBox Imaging for $500 million.
SkyBox says its SkySat satellite can capture images at "sub-meter" resolution, which probably means they are not as fine as DigitalGlobe's pictures.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org