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So, can they read lips? Spy satellites, that is

October 17, 2013

Left: What you can see from a a height of about three, or four storeys. Right: Roughly what a current U.S. Keyhole satellite can reportedly see from Earth orbit.

I ended my post on the Russian Search engine Yandex with a flip comment, hoping satellites hadn’t learned how to lip-read. Had to look that up.

According to available information on current U.S. spy technology, the answer is still no, but they’re coming close. The Kennan “Keyhole-class” satellites are verging on 30-year-old technology. They’re basically Hubble telescopes pointed at Earth, or to put it another way, giant digital cameras.  They reportedly have a resolution of five to six inches, That means each pixel in one of their digital black and white images represents five to six inches. That was the state-of-the-military-art, back in 2001, and is still supposed to be today.

By 2007, The U.S. government was looking at using commercial providers for some of it’s reconnaissance needs. This NBC News item said U.S. commercial satellites had better than two-foot resolution, meaning each pixel in a digital image spanned 24 inches. By 2009, the commercial imaging company GeoEye was working on their next-gen satellite — GeoEye 2, with a resolution of  9.75 inches. According to this 2009 report, the US intelligence community and military had decided to buy imagery from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

A brief history of US military reconnaissance satellites

According to this Gimodo post, the US spy satellite program began with the Corona satellites (1959 to 1972). Each of the 144 was designated Keyhole-#, or KH-#. They were produced and operated jointly by the CIA and U.S. Air Force. The imaging was analog film, with original resolution of 40 feet. By KH-3, resolution was down to 20 feet. Gizmodo says the program settled on a three-foot resolution — it had achieved a resolution of 12-inches, but deemed it to be of no strategic value. These satellites carried a payload of film, and re-entry capsules to drop the film back to Earth. Their life-spans were short — two months or so.

The first generation KH satellites in the successor Hexagon program (1971-1986) were still analog, and had a resolution of two feet. The last generation of this program had a useful life of over 9 months.

The Kennan program satellites (1976-) were the first known to use EO digital sensors and charge-coupled devices (CCD), allowing the first possibility of real-time imaging. Here’s a possible photo of one.


Click the image to go to C.P. Vick’s amazing 1999 annotated diagram of a U.S. KH-11 spy satellite.

The NRO, and the The Future Imagery Architecture flop

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