Thomas Hollowell - Author, Athlete, Entrepreneur, World Traveler

Satellite Spies: Where the Stars Have Eyes

Whether you are sipping a latte on the patio or enjoying an early-morning pick-me-up beside the campfire under the stars, a satellite might have its eyes on you. Think no one will notice that extra sugar cube you just put into that steaming cup? Well, think again. Satellites, hovering way above our lovely blue planet, are in our midst.

The U.S. Government’s National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) leads the way with the most satellites in orbit. We also have all sorts of other private and governmental departments, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Center for Defense Information, the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (which provides direct spy satellite imagery to the U.S. Government) and the soon-to-be National Space Intelligence Center. Other countries, especially Britain, Russia, and China also have their own satellites floating around.

Able to see something as small as four inches on the ground, the satellite spy race has not just begun – it’s been going on for over 40 years. The U.S.’s program has lolled for some years due to other international events. However, with China’s recent launch of an anti-satellite missile (seen as a military test launch), the U.S. has upped its efforts two-fold to stay way ahead of what many believe is a deadly game. The tide is turning from something once reserved for peaceful exploration into something now used for militarization.

Of course, we in the U.S. have blasted some of our own dilapidated satellites into smithereens, but that was back in 1985. Good ol’ Ronald Reagan, who coined the “Star Wars” program, is probably chanting “I told you so!” from his own upper vantage point right now. The U.S. hasn’t fallen behind though. We can still monitor the entire world with our intricate satellite system, while other countries can see no more than 1/3 of the Earth’s land mass. Additionally, we can see through any weather condition and even into the ground with infrared technology. While a certain portion of these satellites is used for some Global Positioning Systems (GPS), others are reserved solely for military use and intelligence gathering.

But, the issue brings up many rhetorical questions that revolve around the ethics or philosophy of it all. Should the United States be mingling in everybody else’s business? Aren’t we just getting ourselves into more trouble? Recently, the U.S. rejected a United Nations referendum that would have put a ban on space weapons. In fact, the Bush administration thereafter made a complete revision (and not simply amendments) to its own National Space Policies, deciding that the U.S. would not work within any arms control agreements. With the revision came a vague clause that the States could block other countries’ space access if that country is “hostile to U.S. interests”. Michael Maples, the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency has called China and Russia “primary states of concern”.

Not only does the U.S. have to work on ground negations to secure our country, it has recently signed agreements with India to help keep an eye on that part of the world. While China isn’t a direct threat to the U.S., per se, those in Washington are keeping an eye on the emerging super power. Although China, which has recently lit up a U.S. spy satellite with a ground laser just to let us know they knew we were there, is on the forefront of internal discussions at the Pentagon, this doesn’t mean we aren’t all going to get along, eventually. China claims it wants to perfect its own GPS system.

In other parts of the world, spy satellites have been fighting the battle on terror. Ethiopia has recently allowed the U.S. Military use of its airstrips and airspace in order to conduct secretive air strikes in Somalia. Ethiopia’s adviser to the Prime Minister, Bereket Simon, has wholeheartedly denied the reports saying, “[We have] not provided any air base for the Americans to strike Somalia …The New York Times has fabricated this story.” The report from the Times, stated that several militants were killed or captured. During the raid, the U.S. used spy satellites and images from the area to carry out their mission.

Newer technologies might have allowed 3-D imaging of the area that reconnaissance teams used in a virtual-reality setting, moving around the area before entering with the ease of a joystick. In the end, Ethiopia received use of American spy satellites to gather their own national intelligence information – what many would consider a fair trade off.

Japan has also been hard at work completing its own fully integrated satellite program, which, like the U.S.’, will be able to monitor the entire globe. Japan claims to stick to its own 1969 DIET resolution (a strict plan for non-military use of their satellite networks). However, this peaceful resolution consists of glimpsing in on North Korea a couple of times a day.

The reality we live in today is that spy satellites are monitoring the entire planet as we sip away at our second mocha. And, countries will always be watching out for their own interests.

As the world seemingly enters into the literal next generation of the space race, several rhetorical questions remain. We now know about the use of satellites for external spying, but what about those satellites used to spy on a country’s own citizens? Is this the price of liberty? And, if so, is it ultimately worth it? You decide.


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Masaki, Hisane. “When a spy satellite isn’t a spy satellite.” Asia Times; February 2007.

“Spy Satellites necessary…”. Yomiuri Shimbun; News . February 25, 2007.

Windrem, Robert. “Spy Satellites Enter New Dimension”. NBC News. February 2007.