A surprising gift

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Jun 15 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Jasmin Kaisla, London

One of the main characters in Tony Scott’s 1998 film ‘Enemy of the State’, Edward Lyle, at one point exclaims, ‘you know the Hubble Telescope that looks up to the stars? They've got over a hundred spy satellites looking down at us’. He then adds, as an afterthought, ‘that's classified’. Well, not any more. Sometime last year, administrators at the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) got a surprising call from colleagues at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). They told them to head over to a facility owned by the aerospace company ITT Excelis to pick up some hardware that the NRO, which operates the US fleet of spy-satellites, no longer needed.

In a clean-room at the ITT Excelis site, NASA technicians found two Hubble-sized telescopes, with complete lenses and control mechanisms (the cameras and the control software had been removed). The two telescopes are allegedly leftover hardware components from a cancelled NRO program called Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). Loretta DeSio, the spokeswoman for the NRO, confirmed that the two telescopes were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which would match with the FIA program.

It is sometimes said that satellite intelligence enabled modern arms control, and it is known that major states rely heavily on multi-spectral satellite imagery for verification purposes. It is not known, however, how sensitive these satellites are. The handover of these two NRO satellites to NASA, however, reveals some interesting technical details, which will serve to enhance our understanding of the use of satellites as so-called ‘national technical means’ of verification.

The two telescopes have an 1/20th wave aperture that is 2.4 meters wide (the same size as Hubble). In addition, the two telescopes have an additional manoeuvrable mirror for the purpose of boosting image sharpness. In addition, the two telescopes reportedly have a shorter focal length (f/1.2) than Hubble (f/2.3), which gives it a wider angle of view (one might think of the telescopes as two giant microscopes rather than being a camera with a zoom-lens). Matt Mountain, the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, called the telescopes’ optics ‘astounding’, while Loretta DeSio confirmed that the hardware represented an upgrade of Hubble’s optical technology.

With the NRO satellites, it may be possible to achieve a resolution of some 10-15 centimetres per pixel looking down on the earth from an altitude of about 300 kilometres. This is much sharper than anything commercially available (Google Earth, for instance, can achieve 50 centimetres per pixel at best). It is also slightly sharper than previous estimates of what spatial resolution the US can expect from its well-known KH-11 class of reconnaissance satellites.

A finer spatial resolution enables satellites to detect such things as distributed soil, vegetation, radiation emitted from heated structures, discharge of warm water plumes from nuclear reactors and components of aerosols, gas plumes and effluents. For instance, twelve years ago, Professor Bhupendra Jasani argued in the Verification Yearbook that, “if underground facilities have been constructed … stressed vegetation that grows on earth-covered bunkers could be distinguished from normal vegetation, since root growth, drainage and soil conditions are different”. To view detail at this level would be very useful for verification organizations.

If the IAEA, for instance, had access to this kind of imagery, their knowledge of what might be going on at the Parchin site would be considerably enhanced (see David Cliff’s blog entry ‘Iran, the IAEA and the Parchin problem’ published last week). For CTBT on-site inspections, such satellite imagery could prove exceptionally useful when attempting to narrow down the search area when looking for a prohibited nuclear explosion. Add to this that modern spy satellites are geared to transmit imagery in near-real time. Vehicles, indeed individuals, can be seen entering and leaving facilities. It would, in theory, even be possible to see items that they are carrying.

But it is perhaps its potency that makes their inclusion unlikely. Possessor nations, of which there are but a few, will be unwilling to share their technological edge. Nations with a nervous inclination would be nervous knowing that images of sensitive installations may be broadly circulated (some are even skittish about the comparably fuzzy Google Earth images which are available to the public). While diplomats and experts fuzz, however, imagery resolution is likely to continue to improve to the point where science meets fiction. At some point, also, the resistance to share very high quality imagery will erode.

It would be worthwhile for intergovernmental organizations to plan for the day when such imagery becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Last changed: Jun 29 2012 at 11:24 AM

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