In 1979, the tiny farming crossroads of Marana proposed spending $1,200 to buy a radar gun for its police department. Such a foray into technology was considered a big step then, and the town marshal was ordered to get the OK from at least four councilmembers before making the purchase, according to minutes of the council meeting.
Last month, a satellite hurtling through space 423 miles above the earth snapped images of the town from its bustling neighborhoods in the south to the farm fields in the north, and Marana is now garnering a reputation for its innovative uses of the cutting-edge technology.
"There's a lot to come from satellite imaging in the future and we're very excited about all the possibilities," said Kevin Sweeney, Marana's director of technical services. "It's really opened us to a lot of uses that we had never even considered before."
Marana is in its second year of purchasing satellite data from commercial firms. It began last year with images from IKONOS, the world's first high-resolution commercial satellite, and the town recently entered into a contract to receive images from space each year.
Since receiving the initial data in June 2002, the town has used the images to map its ever expanding boundaries, chart the town's recreational trail system and produce three-dimensional views of proposed developments to provide citizens a glimpse of what their neighborhoods will look like in the future, Sweeney said.
The satellite, which derives its name from the Greek root word for icon, was launched into space in September 1999 and is operated by Denver-based Space Imaging,.
"IKONOS was a real milestone," said Gary Napier, a spokesman for Space Imaging. "Anything else that was in orbit at the time with that kind of high resolution was not a commercial satellite. They were spy satellites for various governments. You can count cars in parking lots with this kind of resolution."
Although designed primarily for mapping by commercial users, governments also purchase images from the satellite. The company has strict export controls that forbid it from selling information to rogue governments or terrorist organizations, Napier said.
IKONOS orbits a path around the earth from the South pole to the North and takes just about 98 minutes to make the complete circuit.
"We shoot seven mile swaths at a time and it's about 11 o'clock in the morning about every three days that we come over Marana," Napier said.
Marana requests its information be gathered in June when natural vegetation is young and more easy to distinguish with the satellite's infrared capabilities, Sweeney said.
Sweeney, along with Chris Mack, Marana's senior geographic information systems specialist, authored an article last month in Imaging Notes, Space Imaging's in-house magazine. The article focused on the town's uses of specialized computer software and images from IKONOS combined to create three-dimensional graphics of land features in the town.
During a seven day period in May 2002, IKONOS captured images that detailed about 1,350 square kilometers of Marana and its immediate area. The resolution of the images is so fine that it can distinguish objects on the earth's surface as small as one meter square.
Two areas in the realm of satellite imagery that he expects to become even more important down the road involve using the satellites infrared capabilities to map Marana's agricultural regions and identify the desert areas to be protected under the habitat conservation plan Marana is formulating.
"We're an agricultural region, but we've never had any idea about how much agricultural land we have under cultivation or how much acreage is set aside in a given year for cotton. We're expecting a lot of development in the northwest part of town. It's going to change dramatically up there in the future. The information told us what agricultural land we had available and it gives us a base to work with so we can track all the change that is expected," Sweeney said.
The infrared capabilities allow GIS technicians to map habitat down to the specific variety of vegetation, giving Marana's environmental planners a better idea of where conservation should occur, Sweeney said.
"Different vegetation give off different signatures. When the sun comes down and strikes a mesquite tree it reflects differently than an agricultural crop would when its reflected back up to the satellite sensors. You can use software to manipulate the bands to really highlight certain things. It makes it very easy to distinguish between a clump of mesquite and ironwood trees," Sweeney said.
The town's new 3-D capabilities also have come in handy for explaining controversial developments to concerned residents.
During public meetings last year with neighbors of the Sky Ranch Development that is planned in the picturesque desert near Tangerine and Thornydale roads, Marana officials were able to show the areas earmarked for preservation in vivid detail.
"We used the image to show the clustering of the development and to show the impact to the neighbors' property," Sweeney said. "You could really see the contrast between what would be developed and the large amounts of open space. People had this picture in their minds of what they thought it was going to look like and we were able give a better picture of the reality."
Sweeney said future applications of the satellite images include creating storm water models to map water run-off areas, and slope analysis to control building on hillsides.
"It's really amazing technology and we're finding more uses for it all the time," he said.