14/08/2014 08:06 BST | Updated 14/08/2014 08:59 BST

DigitalGlobe WorldView-3 Satellite Is Ridiculously Powerful, And In Orbit Right Now

A new ultra-high resolution commercial satellite is so advanced it could just about watch your TV from space.

The WorldView-3 Earth Imager by Digital Globe was launched atop an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The craft is by some distance the most powerful commercial satellite ever built, and is capable of returning pictures of Earth's surface down to a resolution of 31cm - almost twice as good as DigitalGlobe's previous best of 50cm. That's just about enough to make out tiny details like individual people in urban areas.

Above: a view of Beijing airport taken by DigitalGlobe's previous satellite - at almost half the resolution of its new craft

Restrictions recently lifted in the US cleared the way for DigitalGlobe to sell those new ultra-clear pictures to commercial partners, including Google and Microsoft for their satellite mapping services.

The company must wait six months to sell its images, however, giving the US Commerce Department time to assess "sensitivities" with the images.

The 5.6m-high, 2.8-ton satellite will operate from an altitude of about 617km. It has a 1.1-metre aperture camera and can download images to Earth at 1.2 Gbps.

The potential uses for the satellite are enormous. DigitalGlobe says it will be able to detect different types of materials on the Earth's surface, check for weather information and atmospheric conditions and process that data quickly.

It can also process a massive 650,000 sq km of imagery per day, through 29 spectral bands of light.