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Of the 2,797 operational satellites in orbit, only a few hundred are there for espionage purposes. But their number is expected to swell with the arrival of mesh satellite networks.
With the hindsight of the digital age, the first generation of American and Soviet spy satellites in the 1960s looks incredibly clunky. The Corona and Zenit satellites carried out thousands of two-week surveillance missions in the 1960s, during which they took photographs that were then ejected into canisters that parachuted into the atmosphere below, where they were picked up in the air by planes equipped with “buckets”. The photographic film was then delivered to a photo lab for development.
Today, spy satellites are able to stay in space for decades and broadcast live ultra-high resolution images, eavesdrop on communications, instantly detect hypersonic missile launches, and much more.
How many spy satellites are there up there?
Officially, we don’t know. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) declassified details of most (but not all) of its satellite programs until 1972. Beyond that, we rely on observations from amateur sky observers and other groups. such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA).
According to UCSUSAin the satellite database, there are currently 2,787 operational satellites in orbit, not to mention the growing number of missing satellites or space debris. The United States operates 1,425, China 382, ââRussia 172, and other countries have a total of 808 satellites.
Of the US satellites, 208 are designated “military” and at least 49 of them belong to the NRO. China is believed to have 63 military satellites and Russia 71.
NRO satellites serve a number of purposes, providing data such as signals intelligence to the National Security Agency (NSA), imagery intelligence at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), and measurement and signature information to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The other objectives of spy satellites are early warning of missiles, detection of nuclear explosions, and surveillance by optical and radar imagery.
There will soon be many more spy satellites in orbit
Most people have heard of Elon Musk’s plan to launch more than 7,000 low cost communications satellites into low earth orbit to provide Internet access to the entire globe. The NRO is now taking a similar approach to create comprehensive coverage with its Blackjack Project Mesh Network.
Currently, the US military relies on a relatively small number of extremely expensive and high performance satellites; some of which are as sophisticated as the Hubble Space Telescope. But with many the size of a school bus, they are also very vulnerable targets in times of war.
It is guaranteed that if two space nations were to go to war, enemy spy satellites would be a priority target. Indeed, China, Russia, and United States have all tested anti-satellite missiles in the past. And tensions in orbit are rising: two Russian satellites threatened a secret NRO satellite Last year.
Replacing destroyed satellites would be extremely expensive, and of course there is the risk that any replacement will simply be shot down as well. The solution for the NRO is to replace the large vulnerable satellites with a swarm of cheaper and much smaller satellites to create a mesh network. Project Blackjack would mean that if one satellite is shot down, the (currently unknown) number of satellites swarming in orbit would allow others to quickly reposition themselves to take over. Replacement satellites could then be launched quickly and inexpensively to bring the mesh back to its full power.
Project Blackjack will be supported by a program known as Pit Boss, a system that will autonomously manage the mesh network and ensure data flow to the US military without human intervention. The tiny satellite sensor payloads can include position, navigation and timing systems, communications links between satellites, radio frequency systems, and infrared / electro-optical imagery.
The first Blackjack satellites are expected to launch in 2021.
Image Credit: edobric / Shutterstock