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French, Japanese prepare to give Landsat tough competition

In bidding for the Landsat satellite system, Comsat has its eye on the international market. That's where profits are most likely to be made. And that's where the competition will be fiercest.

France expects to launch its first SPOT earth-scanning satellite next year and a second one in 1986. These will be replaced in orbit as they wear out.

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SPOT can return images far sharper than most marketable Landsat pictures. It also offers 3-D stereo views, which Landsat 4 cannot deliver. The French marketing company, SPOT Image, already is in the field looking for customers.

This is the immediate competition. Meanwhile, Japan and the European Space Agency are developing resource satellites. So is India.

Looked at from this viewpoint, the government-owned Landsat program is ill prepared. It has only two satellites - one in orbit and one in reserve - which can't offer such services as stereo images. Furthermore, there is no program to replace these satellites or develop new models.

Comsat, on the other hand, says it would have powerful new satellites in place by the late 1980s when the international market should begin to strengthen.

''Comsat is the 'AT&T' of the sky,'' says Gordon Law, a space analyst at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. He adds, ''It can offer a variety of services no one else can provide. That is not necessarily a bad thing.''

SPOT Image general manager Andre Fontanel last fall estimated he would be selling some 60,000 images a year once the service is established. Annual gross sales could run to $40 million or $50 million.

That's less than the $72.5 million in Landsat US sales reported for fiscal 1981. However, revenues in this range hardly cover the cost of either satellite system. France will be subsidizing SPOT at least into the 1990s.

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Comsat wants a subsidy, too. It says it needs to acquire the weather satellite system, as well as Landsat, to have a better revenue-generating operation. It also wants the government to underwrite its Landsat financial risk during the start-up years by providing a guaranteed market for data from the satellite.

With this kind of subsidy, Comsat has said it considers Landsat a viable business opportunity. Gordon Law agrees, saying, ''If costs are covered by the US government, then the rest of the world is a whale of a market.''

Next: What overseas users really want.

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