The Evolution and Importance of Reconnaissance Satellites

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After the U-2 incident of 1960, more emphasis was placed on safer methods of acquiring reconnaissance imagery. The first photographic reconnaissance satellite program was the codenamed Discovery. These first satellites could see objects as small as 35-40 feet and once they ejected their film capsule, the satellites were forced to reenter and burn up in the atmosphere. The latest declassified satellite is from the late 1970s and can focus on objects as small as 5.5 inches. Instead of using a film canister, the KH-11 series of satellites uses a digital sensor and communications satellites. Because of the classified nature of these satellites, little is known about the latest generations of satellites. However, from what the public does know of the history of these “eyes in sky” we can trace their importance and evolution.

Strategic reconnaissance gained huge importance with the advent of large intercontinental ballistic missile sites. By knowing the location and defense features of a site, a plan could be formulated to destroy the site in the event of an attack and it could be monitored for launch signatures. Before the dawn of the space age, reconnaissance was performed in many ways. The first instance of flight used in warfare was a hot air balloon with an observer flown by the French. After the USSR rejected the idea of open skies, the United States turned to planes equipped with cameras and other sensors. Ideally these planes could fly fast and high enough to avoid be shot down. However, in 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia. A safer and more secure method of aerial reconnaissance was sought. After experiencing many difficulties and delays in the late 1950s and early in 1960, the first successful Discover satell...

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...satellites have been used or are in use. These are useful because they can see through clouds or camouflage. However, they require more analysis and processing.

Since the early 1960’s image reconnaissance satellites have provided a safe, and almost undiscoverable, if not cost effective way of acquiring imagery of anywhere on the planet. This data was instrumental in the Cold War for determining the size, position, and readiness of Soviet ICBMs. Spy satellites continue to be key today allowing the United States to monitor almost the entire world in real-time.

Works Cited

Pike, John. "Military Imagery Intelligence Satellites." Global Security. (accessed Many 18, 2010).

Wikipedia. "CORONA (Satellite)." Wikipedia. March 25, 2010. (accessed May 19, 2010).