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The evolution of spy satellites

Picture of Manuel Castellanos

Manuel Castellanos

AERTEC / Aerospace Industry


The aerospace industry is probably one of the industries where technological innovation and progress move forward at the fastest pace. One of the fields where this fact is most evident is in the area of satellites.

We often hear news about the activity orbiting around our planet. Despite being the only ones responsible, we are not fully aware of the true significance and consequences this issue could involve.

It can be said that we face a cold war in space with threatening overtones.

In October, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of the aerospace industry’s most significant events, the launch and putting into orbit of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The former Soviet Union launched this satellite equipped with a couple of radio transmitters for scientific purposes, like conducting studies on the upper levels of the atmosphere or studying transmission capacity through them. It overtook the launch of the US Explorer satellite by just a few months. What better proof is there than this to confirm that the world’s aerospace powers have always vied to lead this technology race right from the very start. Yet soon after, a new interest would be added to the list.

More importance is placed on spying on ourselves than on conducting space research.

Purely scientific reasons based on launching rockets carrying telescopes, radio probes and surveillance probes (many of which were sent far from the Earth’s orbit) were not the only reason which urged governments to invest vast sums of money on this enterprise. Satellites employed as tools have been launched (to monitor our GPS for instance) right from the very beginning and other lesser well-known satellites are being used as spying and strategic weapons. The latter can record any point on the planet at a high resolution, along with vehicles, ships, aeroplanes and even submarines through their radio and radar signals.

The fact that almost no technical specifications are available for this kind of satellites is a clear indication of the importance given by each government to keeping them secret. What is more, we would not even be aware of their existence were it not for some leaks made by former employees of the CIA and NSA in the case of the USA.

Luckily, the approximate weight of some of these satellites is known.

For example, a couple of spy satellites were launched last March by the American company ULA (United Launch Services) onboard an Atlas rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. These secret surveillance and electronic intelligence (SIGINT) military spy satellites were conceived by the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and really appear to be INTRUDER 12s despite the fact that the US government cloaks them with less worrying names.

Two or three of these satellites are normally employed to have a better capability to triangulate the position of targets.

The United States, however, is not the only power using space to further its own ends, far from it. China is implementing a similar programme to the Intruder programme made up of three groups of three Yaogan satellites. Its main goal is to locate and track American aircraft carrier groups. In Europe, France, Spain, Italy and Belgium collaborate on the Helios espionage programme. Germany for its part is maintaining its SAR-Lupe programme, while the United Kingdom is doing the same with the Zircon programme. The Middle East is surveilled by a programme called Ofek, which is run by Israel and essentially aimed at keeping tabs on the Iranian nuclear programme. Japan also has its IGS spy satellite and even Egypt monitors its territory with DesertSat.

Many nations have their own secret space espionage programme.

Russia could not be left behind in all this and also has its own toy. One of its spy satellites is called RORSAT, which takes part in several space intelligence and surveillance programmes. The Russian government intends to lead this arms race and to dispel any doubts it is working on manufacturing an airborne laser to counteract a potential enemy’s spying attempts on land, at sea, in the air or from space. It is the Almaz programme, which aims to install a defence system on Russian aircraft based on an infrared laser that is capable of neutralising signals from other intelligence resources.

Hostilities are already underway above us.

The stakes are gradually rising in all this strategy. The Russian government has tracked down and released photographs of active US spy satellites (like the Lacrosse for instance), some of which are hidden away amongst space junk. This has become a very worrying issue for the American government.

North Korea for its part launched the Kwangmyongsong-4 last year to collaborate in the protection and development of its nuclear programmes. This violated the sanctions imposed on the country by the United Nations Security Council and constitutes a threat to world peace and security.

This rivalry is becoming ever more intense. It can be said that we face a cold war in space with threatening overtones. We can only hope this war remains cold and does not ever break out.


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