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A Space-Age Approach to the Big Picture

January 21, 1989|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer

The view from an airplane at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet is a sight many have tried to record on camera. But such attempts at aerial photography are usually disappointing.

You slide up to the window, press your camera lens against the always-scratched plexiglass and what do you get? Just about nothing on your film and a lot of dirty looks from the people around you.

So what possible chance would one have of getting an aerial shot from a height of 2.4-million feet (about 450 miles)? Incredibly, it can be done--with the right equipment.

In this case, the right equipment is U.S. satellite Landsat 5. The satellite was launched in 1984 and is owned by the Earth Observation Satellite Co., which in turn sells the rights to specific images.

A Seal Beach-based company called Spaceshots Inc. bought those rights and is marketing a remarkable, poster-size image of Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties shot from a satellite. The picture is amazing in its detail, which includes some of the larger shopping centers and sports facilities such as Anaheim Stadium and the Rose Bowl.

The company is owned by Dave Hnatiuk and Greg Lytle, both Seal Beach residents. Hnatiuk came up with the idea while looking through a copy of National Geographic Atlas that had a lot of satellite pictures. Hnatiuk, 27, and Lytle, 28, decided to take this idea and market it with a few alterations, such as some color adjustments and directional changes that would make the picture look more lifelike.

"Los Angeles and Orange County seemed like the perfect area to do this because there are so many people and it's so spread out," Hnatiuk said. "It was the ideal situation. When you look at the poster you can see that it's well balanced from an artist's point of view with the majority of the city surrounded by the ocean and mountains."

To create the image, the satellite carries a thematic mapper sensor that senses the electromagnetic radiation reflected back from the earth's surface. The reflection comes back in seven bands of the light spectrum. Then the satellite takes the reflections and translates them into digits. The digits are then sent back to the earth and picked up by a satellite earth station.

This is where Hnatiuk and Lytle take over and put the pictures into a more recognizable form.

"We acquire the computer tape, which has a bunch of digits on it, and those digits have a value from zero to 255, which is basically one color," Hnatiuk said. "What we do is take that tape and run it through a number of computer systems and alter the value of the digits to end up with a natural-looking, digitally produced image.

"We then try to make it look the way people want to see it. If we left it natural, all the lakes would be black. The satellite just scans through the water and makes it black. The water is the main thing we alter so it looks like most people will perceive it."

The photo is marketed in a 2-by-3-foot size, and a 4-by-6-foot size is in the works. The paper version sells for $12.95, and a laminated copy sells for $17.95. It's been especially popular with schools, real estate developers and pilots. Pictures of San Francisco, San Diego, Boston and Washington are also available.

Hnatiuk and Lytle marketed this picture in a rather difficult manner, going door-to-door from shop-to-shop. Their effort paid off, however--the picture is available in more than 300 specialty stores in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

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