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Spy Satellites: Still a Few Steps Ahead

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  • Frits Westra
    URL: http://space.com/news/gov_imagery_990921.htmlSpy Satellites: Still a Few Steps Ahead By Kenneth Silber Staff Writer Sep 21 1999 13:16:18 ET
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 1999
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      URL: http://space.com/news/gov_imagery_990921.html

      Spy Satellites: Still a Few Steps Ahead
      By Kenneth Silber
      Staff Writer
      Sep 21 1999 13:16:18 ET

      The U.S. government retains key technological advantages over the
      commercial sector in satellite imagery, despite the planned launch
      this week of the advanced commercial satellite Ikonos II, according to
      private analysts who monitor the government's spy satellite program.

      Colorado-based Space Imaging's Ikonos II will be the first commercial
      satellite with one-meter resolution, or the capability to discern
      objects as small as one meter (3.28 feet) in diameter.

      According to an estimate by the private Federation of American
      Scientists (FAS), three satellites operated by the U.S. National
      Reconnaissance Office (NRO) have resolutions as sharp as 10
      centimeters (3.93 inches) -- in other words, the satellites can
      discern a softball-sized object from several hundred miles away.

      Tim Brown, a security analyst at FAS, describes 10-centimeter
      resolution as "our best approximation, derived from a few sources."
      The number and capabilities of U.S. spy satellites are classified.

      Higher resolutions are not the government's only advantage over the
      commercial imagery sector, according to Brown. He notes that NRO has
      fast "revisit times" -- such as the ability to photograph a particular
      site several times a day -- because it operates multiple satellites.

      Moreover, he says, the agency's satellites have sophisticated on-board
      propulsion systems that allow flexibility in maneuvering -- including
      the possibility of evading anti-satellite missiles that someday may be
      launched by a hostile power.

      On rare occasion, Brown believes, NRO may dip one of its satellites
      into a low orbit to take images at resolutions better than 10
      centimeters.

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