On Satellites

The complete list of U.S. Reconnaissance Satellite from 1960 to current days


Along with the all-important communications and GPS navigation satellites, there are four other types of military reconnaissance satellites.

1. Optical-imaging satellites that have light sensors in the visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum that can ‘photograph’ objects and weapon systems down to the size of a tennis ball. They can identify targets, make maps and also spot dangerous events like enemy missile launches.

2. Radar-imaging satellites aimed at the same targets that can observe the Earth using different radar wavelengths, even through cloud cover, to cover targets invisible to visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum imagery.

3. Signals-intelligence, or ELINT-ferret, satellites to collect the radio, microwave and electronic transmissions emitted from any country on Earth.

4. Relay satellites that speed military satellite communications around the globe by transmitting data from spy satellites to ground stations on Earth. Most military satellites can now transmit intelligence in real time.

All these satellites can be launched into a regular movable orbit, or can be positioned to hover above a single target on the globe’s surface in what is known as a geosynchronous (geostationary) orbit

As early as 1946, more than eleven years before Sputnik 1, history’s first artificial space satellite, went into orbit the US Project RAND released a remarkably prescient report: Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (SM-11827).

Although it was the US Navy that first mooted the idea of space satellites, the then Major General Curtis E. LeMay USAF insisted that space operations were just an extension of air operations and tasked Project RAND to undertake a wider feasibility study. The resulting reports noted:

Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques . . . A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the twentieth century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb . . .

Thus the space race was born.

Little could the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, often quoted as having come up with the concept of the communications satellite, have realised that his 1945 article titled ‘Extra-terrestrial Relays’ in the British magazine Wireless World would spawn a revolution in global communications, intelligence, and mapping. Clarke’s article described the fundamentals behind the deployment of artificial satellites in geostationary orbits to relay radio signals.

Despite the optimistic RAND report little progress was made in the following decade. For a long time the USAF did not believe that the satellite could be a military weapon. They only saw its potential as a tool for communications, and science. In 1954, the US Secretary of Defense stated publicly, ‘I know of no American satellite program.’

It was only in 1955, as part of American plans for the International Geophysical Year 1957–58 that the White House publicly announced that the US intended to launch satellites by the spring of 1958. This became known as Project Vanguard. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union countered by announcing that they intended to launch a satellite by the autumn of 1957.

After that the pace of satellite development accelerated. In early 1956 President Eisenhower established an Intelligence Advisory Board, who urged the development of a reconnaissance satellite. The Air Force’s WS-117L project showed promise as it offered multipurpose technical reconnaissance capabilities. The planned satellite included a SIGINT payload, an imagery intelligence (IMINT) payload in which film from onboard cameras could be scanned and transmitted to ground stations, and a hard-copy camera system by which film would be returned to earth via a re-entry capsule. Hardcopy photographs were important because their resolution would be pin-sharp, unlike the fuzzy electronically transmitted images, which were comparable to 425-line black-and-white television at best.

The Advisory Board was, however, concerned about the pace of the satellite programme, which they believed was too slow to meet the threat presented by the Soviets. They directed that priority be given to the USAF WS-117L project and concentrated on the technology of hard-copy film recovery.

The Americans were right to be worried about the Soviets’ progress. On 4 October 1957, to the world’s amazement, the USSR launched a football-sized satellite called Sputnik 1 into orbit. The global propaganda impact was enormous as the 22-inch diametre sphere, weighing 190.5 pounds, passed overhead making electronic beeping noises. The Soviets followed up their scientific triumph when, a month later,TASS, the Russian news agency announced the launch of Sputnik 2.

This second satellite was a 507 kg, 1.2 metres-long cone. In addition to the scientific measuring instruments, it carried a live dog called Laika inside a pressurised cabin. Laika was the first animal to reach the upper layers of the atmosphere. The message was clear; if a dog could do it, then so could a man. Sadly, the good-natured mongrel bitch only made a one-way journey. Her planned launch was never designed to be followed by a recovery from orbit.

However, the launch of Sputnik and its display of Soviet technical power caused serious concern in the United States. Any rocket capable of launching such a payload into earth orbit was equally capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and acting as an ICBM. America was shocked by the sudden turn of events, and the Cold War ratcheted up another notch.

Desperate to catch up, the United States managed to launch their first satellite, Explorer 1, on 31 January 1958. The programme was driven by the need to be able to detect any Soviet nuclear build-up and, more important still, to give any warning of a Soviet missile launch.

The First IMINT Satellite started under the name Discoverer as part of the follow-on work on the USAF’s 1956 WS-117L satellite reconnaissance and protection programme, soon to be renamed Corona.

The Discoverer/Corona programme carried out thirty-eight public launches and achieved many technological breakthroughs. Discoverer 1, launched in February 1959, was the world’s first polar-orbiting satellite. The first mission returned with 3,000 feet of film (more than the entire U-2 program up to then), covering 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Discoverer II, launched in April of 1959, was the first satellite able to be:

Stabilised in orbit in all three axes

Manoeuvered on command from the earth

Separate a re-entry vehicle on command

Send its re-entry vehicle back to earth

These characteristics meant that the US now had the potential for a new technical intelligence collection source, parked overhead in space. Discoverer 8, launched in August of 1960, ejected a capsule that was subsequently recovered from the Pacific Ocean, the first successful recovery of a man-made object ejected from an orbiting satellite. It was Discoverer 9 that inaugurated the age of satellite reconnaissance when its discharged film capsule was recovered in the air over the Pacific by a specially-modified JC-130 aircraft, making it the first successful aerial recovery of an object returned from orbit. Satellite reconnaissance was now filling a crucial strategic intelligence gap because, after the Gary Powers U-2 debacle, President Eisenhower had suspended all overflights of the USSR.

The Corona programme continued in secret until 1972 (the date of the last film recovery), with 144 launches. The growing importance of the satellite reconnaissance and intelligence was recognised in 1961 when the White House ordered that all satellite reconnaissance programmes would come under a new intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NRO operated several different versions of Corona during the program’s lifetime, introducing different camera systems and making improvements. Eventually these so-called ‘Keyhole’ (KH) missions could produce imagery with 5–7-foot resolution. It was Keyhole imagery from the Corona series that showed that the Soviets had far fewer strategic missiles and bombers than had been originally thought. For the remainder of the Cold War, technical intelligence from satellite IMINT, combined with SIGINT, consistently gave US officials accurate estimates of how many missiles, bombers, and submarines the Soviet Union really had.

The second satellite programme to evolve from WS 117L was called SAMOS, and was intended to carry a heavier reconnaissance payload. Four of the eleven SAMOS launches failed and the image quality was poor. As a result, the programme was stopped in 1962. SAMOS was accompanied by MIDAS early warning surveillance satellites stationed in geosynchronous orbit over Soviet missile sites. However by 1974 the Department of Defense had developed a new system called GAMBIT, with a ‘77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation’, according to the NRO.

Later GAMBITs carried a state-of-the-art reconnaissance pack, including a 175-inch focal length camera with a resolution of less than two feet, and the ability to process, transmit, and receive electronic signals while on mission, thus allowing dissemination of near realtime digital imagery for targeting and strategic threat.

As the Cold War turned even more dangerous in the mid 1960s, American planners conceived a new and highly advanced satellite codenamed ‘Hexagon’. Hexagon was an extraordinarily ambitious project to place a huge spy satellite into space to look into the very backyards of the Soviet Union and Communist China. At the time (1967), it was the most classified project in America. It was also the most unlikely. Joseph Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civilian space projects, spent six months waiting for his security clearance, working in what the hirees called the ‘Mushroom Tank’ (because they were kept in the dark about what their new jobs were to be). When he was finally cleared and briefed on Hexagon, Prusak wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

The massive KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite was the largest satellite up to that time. ‘I thought they were crazy,’ Prusak said. ‘They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-metres) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimetres) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind.’ Not for nothing was the Hexagon dubbed, ‘Big Bird’. The plan to fire something weighing fifteen tons and the length of two busses into space was, in 1970, almost beyond belief. The project suffered a serious setback on its first launch when the delivery rocket blew up on the pan. Undaunted, the American intelligence agencies persisted. They knew that, potentially, they had a game changer on their hands.

Earlier space spy satellites such as Corona and Gambit were at least a whole generation – if not two – behind the plans for Hexagon. But neither offered the resolution nor sophistication of Hexagon, which was intended to take thousands of high-resolution pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, even of individual bombers, missile silos and army units on exercise.

Later launches were more successful. Early Hexagons could stay up for 124 days but, as the satellites became more sophisticated, follow-on missions were extended to last for up to five months in space. The key to the missions’ success was the satellites’ revolutionary imagery package. The so-called ‘Key Hole’ system was built around a suite of new cameras with a panoramic ‘optical bar’ designed by Phil Pressel. Much later, Pressel explained his motivation to work on the Hexagon. ‘I never wanted to work on an offensive weapon system, something that would kill people. I am happy that I always worked on reconnaissance or intelligence projects, projects that secured our country.’ The result of his lifelong secret, one of the United States’ most closely guarded intelligence assets, was a behemoth larger than a London bus: the now declassified KH 9 spy satellite.

One of his revolutionary rotating cameras looked forward of the long thin satellite as the other looked aft, thus capturing detailed imagery in stereo, with a declared resolution of about two to three feet. (Insiders hinted that it could spot and photograph much smaller objects.) The Hexagon’s twin optical-bar panoramic-mirror cameras rotated as they swept back and forth while the satellite flew over earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as ‘mowing the lawn’. The results were astonishing. According to the National Reconnaissance Office, one single Hexagon frame could cover a swathe of 370 nautical miles (680 kilometres) – about the distance from London to Koln, or Washington to Cincinnati.

The film was recovered by dropping film return-capsules for recovery. A specially equipped aircraft would try and catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute as it floated to earth after the film canister’s re-entry. However, the very first recovery of the ‘film bucket’ from a KH-9 Hexagon in spring 1972 went badly wrong. The Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the parachute and the capsule, with its vital load of high-resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos, plunged into the sea to sink to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The Americans were undaunted by the failure. In a remarkable feat of Cold War clandestine ingenuity, the US Navy’s deep submergence vehicle Trieste II managed to locate and recover the film bucket and its priceless cargo at a depth of nearly 16,000 feet.

After that the Keyhole success rate increased and the KH Series satellites became a vital part of the US intelligence effort, as the Cold War went into its increasingly expensive end game and America ratcheted up the price of staying in the fight. The Soviets were increasingly falling behind in the race for eyes in the sky. By the early 1980s they were unable to invest enough to keep up with burgeoning American technology, especially as the NRO developed the Keyhole programme to operate the KH-8 Gambit 3 and KH-9 Hexagon in tandem, teaming up to photograph areas of military significance in both the Soviet Union and China. The KH-9 would make the first pass, imaging a wide swathe of terrain, to be scrutinised by imagery intelligence analysts on the ground looking for so-called ‘targets of opportunity’. Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be manoeuvred over the target to photograph the precise location in much higher resolution.

The Hexagon’s final launch in April 1986 met with disaster just like the very first launch, as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after lift-off, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months. However, by then, the Hexagon satellites’ early warning job was nearly over as the USSR slid into economic and eventually political ruin.

NASA’s Rob Landis was unequivocal about the contribution satellites made to US and Allied intelligence during the Cold War: ‘You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the Corona and Discoverer programs,’ Landis said. ‘He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors. Frankly, I think that Gambit and Hexagon helped prevent World War Three.’

Few would disagree. The 1970s programme of Rhyolite/Aquacade satellites were designed specifically to intercept Soviet and Chinese microwave relay signals traffic, much of which missed the receiving dish and, because of the curvature of the Earth, carried on into space. By placing a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit at a position in the sky where it could intercept and catch the beam, the US government was able to listen in on Soviet telephone calls and telex cables during the Cold War. Even the Kremlin’s car-phone system was vulnerable.

It was not just SIGINT. Jimmy Carter was astonished, on coming into the White House in 1977, to be presented by the CIA with a series of pin-sharp photographs of the movement of tanks in Poland in real time. The images had been taken by the latest KH 11 satellite. Carter was delighted at the intelligence that satellites could now provide to him as Commander-in-Chief. From then on the US satellite budget has always been safe.

In 1991, the role of intelligence was revolutionised by the Gulf War. Satellite intelligence was used to provide warning of Scud attacks, to target Patriot anti-missile rockets, to provide weather data, aid with land navigation and aerial bombardment, and serve as a communication channel. The growing struggle against Islamic jihadi terrorists has also seen a heavy reliance upon satellite imagery and electronic intelligence in efforts to trace the movements of key terrorist leaders and identify targets.

This switch from strategic to tactical intelligence has brought with it enhanced capabilities for reconnaissance satellites. For example, the US government’s hunt for, and elimination of, the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could only have been accomplished with real-time satellite surveillance.

And where the US led, other countries have followed; every nation with the technical prowess and financial resources now has satellites in space, from communications satellites to GPS navigation systems, as well as the numerous intelligence platforms. Foremost among them is Israel, which, unwilling to rely on the US for its satellite images, launched its first reconnaissance satellite in April 1995. Japan has also acted on its own regional security concerns and launched reconnaissance satellites; its first launch was in 2003, specifically to keep an eye on China and North Korea. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, and Pakistan have all become owners of the most expensive intelligence-collection assets in history.

Inevitably, much of the work and technology of the satellite intelligence programmes has been highly classified and we can only guess at the very latest intelligence collection systems. One satellite intelligence programme, however, has been well aired in the world’s press: the US-controlled ECHELON system.

ECHELON first made the news in 1988 when a Lockheed employee, Margaret Newsham, admitted to a US Congressman that the telephone calls of a US senator were being collected by the NSA. Congressional investigators determined that ‘targeting of U.S. political figures would not occur by accident, but was designed into the system from the start’. Later that year, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell wrote an article for the New Statesman called ‘Somebody’s listening’, outlining the signals intelligence gathering activities of ECHELON. By 1996 the cat was truly out of the bag. Nick Hager, a New Zealand journalist provided specific details about the ECHELON satellite surveillance system, claiming that it was a joint UK-US-Canadian-Australian system that could eavesdrop on any telephonic communication.

In 2000 a former Director of the CIA confirmed that US intelligence uses interception systems and keyword searches to monitor European businesses. This prompted the European Parliament to investigate the ECHELON surveillance network. The US refused to meet the members of a European investigating committee, and the BBC reported that, ‘The US Government still refuses to admit that Echelon even exists.’

According to the whistle blowers – or traitors, depending on your point of view – ECHELON and its follow-on systems such as PRISM, DISHFIRE, TURBULENCE and MYSTIC still exist, now with enhanced capabilities to monitor, intercept, and record telephonic and email transmissions, as well as any other communications in the electronic sphere. If ECHELON’S intelligence collection capabilities in 2001 were described as ‘awesome’, then there is hard evidence that that Big Brother’s electronic ear is today even more powerful: a conclusion that raises serious questions for the citizen’s right to privacy, democratic politicians and lawyers.

That the post-ECHELON systems exist is not in doubt. In 2012 a Royal Canadian Navy intelligence officer, Sub Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, was sentenced to twenty years after pleading guilty to having downloaded and sold information from the Codeword (the security level above top secret) STONEGHOST communications interception system to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

The digital age and modern communications systems have taken satellite and intelligence collection to new heights, in every sense. Until its retirement in 2011, modern intelligence satellites were intercepted and refuelled in space using the Space Shuttle, whose design was specifically tailored to include a cargo bay big enough to recover and repair America’s intelligence collectors in space. Intelligence agencies and decision makers now rely almost entirely on satellites for their technical intelligence.

Today’s satellites still have five major roles as intelligence collection sources: early warning, to provide warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missile launches; detecting nuclear explosions on the ground and in space; photo surveillance, (IMINT) to provide images from space using a variety of sensors that can see through cloud using synthetic aperture radar and millimetric radar as well as spectral imaging; intercepting electronic-reconnaissance radio waves across all frequencies (SIGINT); and radar imaging to identify and measure any particular equipment or systems of interest, (MASINT).

Inevitably, the market place has recognised the potential profitability of satellites. Literally thousands of commercial satellites now surround the earth, competing for commercial reconnaissance as well as communications. This broader role for reconnaissance satellites was recognised in 2005 when America’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency used information from US government satellites, commercial satellites, and airborne reconnaissance platforms to support hurricane-relief efforts and provide information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With the end of the Cold War, private companies even began to sell declassified imagery as the distinction between government military satellites and commercial satellites disappeared. Since the 1990s, commercial vendors have entered the market and their modern, relatively high-resolution imagery from satellites offer an invaluable tool to commercial enterprises such as oil prospecting, geologists, weather forecasting, or crop production, as well as many other applications. And, since the advent of ‘Google Earth’ in 2005, we can now all gain access to free satellite imagery. Google’s systems are capable of excellent resolution — down to less than half a metre; and even that is rumoured to be limited only by US government restrictions to prevent the image quality from getting too good.

Today the NRO and its fellow intelligence agencies operate ground stations around the world that collect and distribute intelligence gathered from reconnaissance satellites, both imagery and electronic. Along with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), with its primary mission of collecting, analysing, and distributing geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of national security requirements, US hi-tech satellite intelligence has reached a new level, providing comprehensive GEOINT for US military and intelligence efforts, as well as assistance during natural and man-made disasters, and even security planning for major events such as the Olympic Games. It was the NGA that was credited by the White House and Pentagon with providing critical intelligence for Operation Neptune’s Spear in 2011, when United States SEALS raided a secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama Bin Laden.

However, just as satellites seemed poised to take over the role of image collectors entirely, there was a significant development in the field of reconnaissance aircraft. In the last twenty years new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been developed for imagery and signals intelligence. These drones are significant because they give the decision maker and the battlefield commander an ‘eye in the sky’ without, crucially, risking an expensive and vulnerable pilot. Moreover, modern UAVs are relatively cheap, they are flexible, they can stay aloft for hours and they provide a remarkable cost-effective force multiplier for commanders at all levels.

For example, at the time of writing (2015) the USAF’s RQ-4A Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial reconnaissance system which can give field commanders high resolution, near real-time imagery of large geographic areas from thousands of miles away. It can carry out reconnaissance missions in support of all types of operations. With its 14,000 nautical-mile range and forty-two-hour endurance, combined with satellite and line-of-sight communication links to ground forces, the Global Hawk can operate anywhere in the world. High-resolution sensors, including visible and infrared electro-optical systems and synthetic aperture radar, will conduct surveillance over an area of 40,000 square nautical miles to an altitude of 65,000 feet in twenty-four hours.

Global Hawk is high-tech, big and expensive; but it is still a great deal cheaper and more flexible than rocket-launched satellites. Its smaller cousins are much cheaper still, and these smaller UAVs have the added advantage of being very hard to detect, and even more difficult to shoot down. Some are even expendable, designed to be abandoned once the mission is completed; others are small enough to be shaped like birds. But all have the capability of relaying intelligence images in real time to a commander at any level from a reconnaissance patrol to defence ministers.

Even Britain’s cash strapped austerity MoD has confirmed that the most cost-effective way ahead for aerial reconnaissance is the UAV, announcing at the end of 2014 that Britain was adding extra Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft to its forces deployed to fight Islamic State militants.

In the twenty-first century, IMINT has come to dominate our lives and the battlefield, from space and from drones, whether we like it or not. Unless it is undercover, tucked away in a hangar, or out of sight, nowadays nothing is secret from the eye in the sky that is aerial reconnaissance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *