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Evolution of Satellite Intelligence

Updated on December 30, 2014



Beginning of Satellite Intelligence

Satellite intelligence collection has greatly evolved from its conception, from the Cold War to today. The inadequacies of aerial reconnaissance and the U-2 aircraft’s photographic capabilities during the Cold War, led the U.S. government to invest in satellite imagery as the newest form of reconnaissance (Moynihan, 2000). A newfound interest in satellite imagery led to the creation of spacecraft that had the capability to collect high-resolution imagery against the Soviet Union (Richelson, 1999). Another contributing factor to the development of the US space program was the Soviet Union’s advancement and employment of the Sputnik satellites (Richelson, 1999). By the 1960’s, the Eisenhower Administration established the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to head the U.S. satellite programs (Richelson, 1999). The NRO gave the Air Force and the CIA the resources to take on their own satellite initiatives. The CIA was tasked with supervising and developing the CORONA satellite program, which was designed to conduct area surveillance (Richelson, 1999).

Imagery From CORONA Satellite


The CORONA Satellite

According to Moynihan (2000), creating the first successful satellite program was a feat in and of itself. The CORONA satellite was launched up to 13 times before it had a successful launch (Moynihan, 2000). Once the CORONA was successfully emplaced in space and orbited the Earth, another aircraft would extract the canister that was aboard the CORONA. The camera that was put on the CORONA was later named KH-1 and has the ability of producing photos at a resolution of 25-40 feet (Richelson, 1999). This successful launch and high-resolution images were able to provide solid intelligence on the Soviet Union and was a vast improvement from the U-2 aircraft (Richelson, 1999). During the 1960’s, the CORONA went through numerous camera upgrades from KH-1 to KH-4B, which continued to generate more advanced images at higher resolutions (Richelson, 1999). The advancement of the CORONA program greatly improved the U.S.’ foresight regarding Soviet capabilities and missile plans. The U.S. intelligence community was able to gather images and locate all of the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile complexes. In addition, the CORONA was able to provide insight on “Soviet air defense anti-ballistic missile sites, nuclear weapons related facilities, submarine bases…as well as Chinese, East European, and other nations military facilities” (Richelson, 1999).

The HEXAGON Satellite


The HEXAGON & GAMBIT Satellite

After more continued research, the intelligence community developed another area reconnaissance satellite known as the Hexagon, which was designed with an even more sophisticated camera and could produce an even higher resolution of 1-2 feet (Richelson, 1999). By 1984, the Hexagon satellite was replaced with a KH-11 camera that did not require the retrieval of canisters, but transformed its “electronic signals and relayed…” the information “back to a ground station, where the signals were recorded on tape and converted into an image” (Richelson, 1999). Another significant satellite program was known as the GAMBIT, which was designed to provide target reconnaissance on “foreign weapon systems” (Richelson, 1999). GAMBITs original capability could only provide images with an 18-inch resolution, but by the KH-8, the GAMBIT could generate photos at a 6-inch resolution (Richelson, 1999).

Has satellite intelligence collection improved since the Cold War?

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Satellite Intelligence Collection

The substantial advancement in the satellite and space programs has greatly contributed to the success of intelligence collection and the US intelligence community as a whole. Some of the newer satellite cameras such as the KH-11 and VEGA program have an infrared and thermal infrared capability, which creates better images and can decipher images through cloud cover and darkness (Richelson, 1999). The satellite intelligence collection capability has continued to advance and has seen many technological upgrades that have led to effective intelligence gathering. Many advances have been made in satellite collection especially regarding imagery intelligence, signal intelligence capabilities as well as measure and signature intelligence capabilities (Lesson: Space and Cyberspace Collection, AMU). Today, satellite intelligence collection has played a vital role in the post 9/11 security environment and especially during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Lesson: Space and Cyberspace Collection, AMU). The US intelligence community has continued to explore commercial satellite avenues in order to produce the best images possible for strategic operations and in support of military operations (Richelson, 1999). Many of the advanced commercial satellites have the capability of producing photographs and imagery at a 1-meter resolution and have been found to be less expensive than government satellites (Richelson, 1999).

End Remarks

Satellite and space intelligence capabilities have vastly improved since the arms race with the Soviet Union to today. Over the years, many advancements have been made to satellite collection such as they way satellites are launched, techniques for obtaining imagery, and significant improvements have been made on the satellite cameras with continued refinement to resolution. These technological achievements during the Cold War to today have made satellite intelligence collection what it is today, which has made it an integral asset within the intelligence field.


Lesson: Space and Cyberspace Collection, AMU. 2013.

Moynihan, Mark, F. 2000. The Scientific Community and Intelligence Collection. Physics Today (December); 51-56.

Richelson, Jefferey, T. 1999. U.S. Satellite Imagery, 1960-1999. National Security Archive|George Washington University.


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    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I didn't realize that the older satellites required a physical retrieval of film prior to the days that the digital signals could be transmitted back to earth. It's amazing how technology has improved with satellite intelligence collection.


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