The history of spy satellites

Let us have a look for this new article on Space Legal Issues at spy satellites. A reconnaissance satellite or spy satellite is a low-orbiting satellite that collects information about civilian and military installations in other countries using an optical or radar system. The first generation type took photographs, then ejected canisters of photographic film which would descend back down into Earth’s atmosphere. Capsules were retrieved in mid-air as they floated down on parachutes. Later, spacecraft had digital imaging systems and downloaded the images via encrypted radio links.

Spy satellites developed by the United States of America

The story of these spy satellites begins with a report made in 1954 by RAND Corporation, an American military research organization. This study concludes with the feasibility of spy satellites. On the basis of this report, the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite program is launched. We are then in the Cold War period. The United States of America is developing a Lockheed U-2 spy plane, nicknamed “Dragon Lady”. This aircraft will make a first reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union in 1956. Thereafter, it will continue to be used for reconnaissance missions.

In 1957, the Soviet Union succeeded in placing a first satellite into orbit, it was Sputnik 1. This exploit led the United States of America to believe that the U.S.S.R. had numerous missiles and a strong strike power. Lockheed Martin then began the development, under the supervision of the CIA, of KH-1 reconnaissance satellites. This satellite takes images which are stored on a photographic film. This photographic film is brought back by a capsule propelled using a retrorocket towards the Earth and caught in mid-flight. In January 1959, a first attempt was made. It will fail, as will the next eleven attempts.

In August 1960, we witnessed a success for the first time and images captured by the satellite were recovered. The images thus received are of lower quality than those taken by spy planes, but the images received are much more numerous. The KH-1 reconnaissance satellite is replaced by the KH-2 satellite, which will be replaced by the KH-3. These satellites will be assigned the code name 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.

In the year 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American reconnaissance aircraft with an anti-missile missile and managed to capture its pilot. This event will mark the end of overflights of Soviet territory by American reconnaissance planes. In 1961 the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was created. This organization was created to develop the reconnaissance program by concentrating the work of the armies and the various intelligence agencies. From 1962 to 1972, several versions of the KH-4 satellite were developed, each more efficient than the previous one. Then, from the second half of the 1960s, the KH-7 and KH-8 satellites were developed. These satellites were capable of taking detailed pictures of objects on the ground. They will then be used in addition to KH-4. The KH-4 satellites are then responsible for identifying interesting sites which will then be photographed in detail by the KH-7.

In the 1970s, the KH-9 HEXAGON was developed and eventually replaced the KH-4 satellites. The KH-9 Hexagon had several return capsules which allowed it to follow several missions at the same time, but also to extend its duration of use. The return of images by capsules was abandoned from 1976, the year of the launch of the KH-11 KENNEN satellite. The images taken by this satellite are digitized and then transmitted directly to the control center. To ensure the transmission of these images, several satellites (the Satellite Data System or SDS, a system of United States military communications satellites) are launched and put into orbit. Digital image transmission and the fact that the KH-11 KENNEN satellite is placed in a higher orbit increased its lifespan compared to older satellites.

At the end of the 1980s, the United States of America launched its first radar reconnaissance satellite called Lacrosse or Onyx. It provides medium quality images of a very large area or very good quality images of a small area. This satellite can take images day and night, since the absence of a cloud layer is not necessary for good image quality. Due to their high orbit, these satellites have a fairly long lifespan since it is around nine years. As with the KH-11 KENNEN satellites, the images captured by the Lacrosse satellites are transmitted via relay satellites.

In 1999, the United States of America launched the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program with the aim of developing new reconnaissance satellites that could replace the KH-11 and the Lacrosse. The Boeing Company was in charge of this program. The development of optical satellites has been abandoned due to cost. However, the first radar satellite from this development program, the Topaz satellite, was launched into orbit in 2010.

In the U.S.S.R.

The Soviet Union built and used a lot of spy satellites. The development of its reconnaissance satellites was organized into two main programs: Zenit and Iantar. Launched between 1961 and 1994, the Zenit satellites placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) took photographs which were stored on films. These satellites were equipped with return capsules to send the films with the captured images back to Earth. The capsule was then caught by a plane in mid-flight. The lifespan of Zenit satellites was very limited, a few dozen days, which explains why the U.S.S.R. drew more than six hundred satellites. The Iantar spy satellites, used from 1981 onwards, initially worked with a return capsule system allowing the recovery of films. Then, the following versions of the Iantar satellite allowed the digital transmission of the collected images.

Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Russia has struggled to develop new reconnaissance satellites at the same pace. However, some new satellites have emerged such as the Araks, the Orlets, the Bars-M and the Persona. Today, only the Bars-M and Persona satellites remain operational. The Razdan optical reconnaissance satellite was to be launched from 2019 and gradually replace the Persona satellites. These Razdan satellites, placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), have an increased performance in particular concerning the transfer of data to the stations which is done faster.

In other countries

France began to develop its first optical recognition satellites in the 1980s. The first Helios satellite was launched in 1995. This series of optical satellites will be launched until 2009. This satellite will then be replaced by the Pléiades recognition satellite, launched from 2011 to 2012. This series of satellites has also been replaced by the optical reconnaissance satellite CSO (Composante Spatiale Optique) launched since 2018.

China also has spy satellites. These are optical and radar reconnaissance satellites. The first reconnaissance satellite, the FSW (Fanhui Shi Weixing), was launched in 1974. Subsequently, several Yaogan satellites were launched. The LKW-1 optical satellites have been operational since 2017. China also uses wiretapping satellites.

Germany has commanded and started deploying its own reconnaissance satellites after the United States of America was reluctant to share information collected by its satellites during the Kosovo war. Still other countries use spy satellites, such as Italy, Japan, Israel and the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

This article was written by Clara NOGUEIRA (Paris-Saclay).