Satellite Recon Goes Mass Market

Cold-war capabilities are now available to everybody

3 min read

A photo of 4 people watching a rocket launch into the sky.

A Delta IV rocket launched a spy satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2012.


For many techies, the Cold War was an exhilarating time to be alive. As the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in a half-century-long struggle for military, economic, cultural, and ideological dominance, the winner was technology.

The most obvious beneficiaries were submarines, bombers, ballistic missiles, plutonium-production reactors, and, of course, bombs—instruments of “shock and awe.” But some of the most interesting tech was tucked away, or far away, from the view of ordinary folks. These were the cipher machines, the code-breaking supercomputers, and, especially, reconnaissance planes and satellites.

Today, you can buy or easily access all sorts of consumer tech that exceeds the capabilities of what used to be called National Technical Means. We don’t know how powerful the National Security Agency’s supercomputers were in the late 1980s, but consider the Cray Y-MP—introduced in 1988: It could sustain a rate of 2 gigaflops. Really hot stuff at the time. Pretty pokey nowadays, though, when a garden-variety M1 Mac delivers 2.6 teraflops for roughly US $1,000.

But for glamour and intrigue, it’s hard to beat a recon satellite. Overhead reconnaissance was at the heart of some of the most sensational crises of the Cold War—the “Missile Gap,” the capture of U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the William Kampiles “Big Bird” spy scandal. Kampiles sold to Soviet agents the user manual for the first KH-11 spy satellite, which had cost billions of dollars to develop. He spent 18 years in jail for the transaction, which netted him $3,000.

First launched in 1976, the KH-11s pioneered the use of electronic sensors—charge-coupled devices—to capture images, which were transmitted to ground stations in near-real time. Previous spy satellites exposed photographic film and ejected film canisters in reentry capsules; specially equipped aircraft then snagged the capsules as they parachuted down through the atmosphere.

When I visited Kwajalein Atoll, a U.S. military test site, in 1986, an old intelligence hand told me a story whose possibly apocryphal nature won’t stop me from repeating it here. It seems that in the late 1970s, some technicians at an intelligence facility in Texas, known to be of interest to the Soviets, decided to have some fun. They took a couple of hundred towels and arranged them on the ground to spell out, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE WHERE WE WERE 10 YEARS AGO.” Or, more likely, «Если вы можете прочитать это, вы находитесь там, где мы были 10 лет назад.»

The resolution of the KH-11s has never been revealed, but it is thought to have been about 15 centimeters in the 1980s, depending on circumstances, including the altitude at which an image was captured. That’s better than what you can now get in the commercial realm, from the handful of companies selling reconnaissance images and services to anyone who wants them. That’s because the U.S. government limits the resolution of commercially available reconnaissance images to 25 cm.

Nevertheless, a thriving commercial market has sprung up. Companies including 21AT, Airbus, Maxar, and Planet are all offering images to private buyers with resolution down to about 30 cm.

Image-processing software and other enhancements may have endowed the current crop of KH-11 satellites with resolving power as good as 10 cm. Confidence in the 10-cm figure arises from several different factors, not least a single reconnaissance image tweeted by then-president Donald Trump on 30 August 2019. The image, of an Iranian rocket-launch facility damaged by an explosion, is believed to have been made the day before by a KH-11 designated USA-224.

Will ordinary citizens ever get access to 10-cm resolution? Don’t count on it. Superpower tensions are again sky-high, and even if they weren’t, the U.S. government would still have a clear interest in keeping that capability to itself. Then, too, resolution probably won’t improve much beyond 10 cm anytime soon: It depends on the size of a spy satellite’s objective mirror, and that, in turn, is limited by the payload capabilities of the rocket that launches it. For orbiting big spooky satellites, the United States will soon transition from the Delta IV Heavy to a new rocket, the Vulcan. Its capabilities aren’t much greater than the Delta IV’s.

And, finally, if the world does plunge into another Cold War, its participants will strive for dominance by leveraging software, more so than hardware. The breakthroughs will be no less amazing. But they’ll be even less visible than spy satellites.

This article appears in the March 2022 print issue as “Your Eye in the Sky.”

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