A spy satellite is an Earth observation satellite
Earth observation satellite
Earth observation satellites are satellites specifically designed to observe Earth from orbit, similar to reconnaissance satellites but intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, map making etc....
or communications satellite
A communications satellite is an artificial satellite stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications...
deployed for military
A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats. The military may have additional functions of use to its greater society, such as advancing a political agenda e.g...
Espionage or spying involves an individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information. Espionage is inherently clandestine, lest the legitimate holder of the information change plans or take other countermeasures once it...
These are essentially space telescopes
A space observatory is any instrument in outer space which is used for observation of distant planets, galaxies, and other outer space objects...
that are pointed toward the Earth instead of toward the stars. The first generation type (i.e. Corona
The Corona program was a series of American strategic reconnaissance satellites produced and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science & Technology with substantial assistance from the U.S. Air Force...
Zenit spy satellite
Zenit is the name of a series of military spy satellites launched by the Soviet Union between 1961 and 1994. To conceal their nature, all flights were given the public Kosmos designation...
) took photographs, then ejected canisters of photographic film
Photographic film is a sheet of plastic coated with an emulsion containing light-sensitive silver halide salts with variable crystal sizes that determine the sensitivity, contrast and resolution of the film...
, which would descend to earth.
Corona capsules were retrieved in mid-air
Mid-air retrieval is a technique used in atmospheric reentry when the reentering vehicle is incapable of a satisfactory unassisted landing. The vehicle is slowed by means of parachutes, and then a specially-equipped aircraft matches the vehicle's trajectory and catches it in mid-air.This is a risky...
as they floated down on parachute
A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag, or in the case of ram-air parachutes, aerodynamic lift. Parachutes are usually made out of light, strong cloth, originally silk, now most commonly nylon...
s. Later spacecraft had digital imaging systems and downloaded the images via encrypted radio links.
In the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
, most information available is on programs that existed up to 1972. Some information about programs prior to that time is still classified
Classified information is sensitive information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular groups of persons. A formal security clearance is required to handle classified documents or access classified data. The clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation...
, and a small trickle of information is available on subsequent missions.
A few up-to-date reconnaissance satellite images have been declassified on occasion, or leaked, as in the case of KH-11
The KH-11 KENNAN, renamed CRYSTAL in 1982 and also referenced by the codenames 1010, and "Key Hole", is a type of reconnaissance satellite launched by the American National Reconnaissance Office since December 1976...
photographs which were sent to Jane's Defence Weekly
Jane's Defence Weekly
Jane's Defence Weekly is a weekly magazine reporting on military and corporate affairs, edited by Peter Felstead. It is one of a number of military-related publications named after John F. T. Jane, an Englishman who first published Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships in 1898...
OriginsOn March 16, 1955, the United States Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...
officially ordered the development of an advanced reconnaissance satellite to provide continuous surveillance of 'preselected areas of the earth' in order 'to determine the status of a potential enemy’s war-making capability'.
In October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik
Sputnik 1 ) was the first artificial satellite to be put into Earth's orbit. It was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. The unanticipated announcement of Sputnik 1s success precipitated the Sputnik crisis in the United States and ignited the Space...
. It was the first man made object to be put into Earth's orbit.
MissionsExamples of reconnaissance satellite missions:
- High resolution photography (IMINTIMINTImagery Intelligence , is an intelligence gathering discipline which collects information via satellite and aerial photography. As a means of collecting intelligence, IMINT is a subset of intelligence collection management, which, in turn, is a subset of intelligence cycle management...
- Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT)
- Communications eavesdropping (SIGINT)
- Covert communications
- Monitoring of nuclear test banComprehensive Test Ban TreatyThe Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996 but it has not entered into force.-Status:...
compliance (see National Technical Means)
- Detection of missile launches
In fictionSpy satellites are commonly seen in spy fiction
Spy fiction, literature concerning the forms of espionage, was a sub-genre derived from the novel during the nineteenth century, which then evolved into a discrete genre before the First World War , when governments established modern intelligence agencies in the early twentieth century...
and military fiction. Some works of fiction that focus specifically on spy satellites include:
- The OMAC ProjectThe OMAC ProjectThe OMAC Project is a six issue American comic book limited series written by Greg Rucka with art by Jesus Saiz and published by DC Comics in 2005.-Overview:...
- Enemy of the State (film)
- Body of Lies (film)Body of Lies (film)Body of Lies is a 2008 American spy film directed by Ridley Scott. Set in the Middle East, it follows the attempts of the CIA and Jordanian Intelligence to catch "al-Saleem", a fictional jihadist terrorist...
- Ice Station ZebraIce Station ZebraIce Station Zebra is a 1963 thriller novel written by Scottish author Alistair MacLean. This was the last of MacLean's classic sequence of first person narratives which began with Night Without End, and represented a return to that earlier novel's Arctic setting...
- National Reconnaissance OfficeNational Reconnaissance OfficeThe National Reconnaissance Office , located in Chantilly, Virginia, is one of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. It designs, builds, and operates the spy satellites of the United States government.-Mission:...
- Defense Support ProgramDefense Support ProgramThe Defense Support Program is a program of the U.S. Air Force that operates the reconnaissance satellites which form the principal component of the Satellite Early Warning System currently used by the United States....
- European Union Satellite CentreEuropean Union Satellite CentreThe European Union Satellite Centre is an agency of the European Union's Council of Ministers which gathers information through satellite images....
- Atmospheric reentryAtmospheric reentryAtmospheric entry is the movement of human-made or natural objects as they enter the atmosphere of a celestial body from outer space—in the case of Earth from an altitude above the Kármán Line,...
- List of intelligence gathering disciplines
- Space-Based Reconnaissance by MAJ Robert A. Guerriero
- Java 3D satellite tracker
- GlobalSecurity.org: Imagery Intelligence
- Iran to Launch first spy satellite
- Military Intelligence Satellites (NASA, remote sensing tutorial)