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The unblinking eye

Commercial spy satellites gain power as resolutions sharpen

Mar. 26, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By PAUL RICHFIELD   |   Comments
Demonstrating the clarity of today's satellite images: The Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Demonstrating the clarity of today's satellite images: The Great Barrier Reef, Australia. (DigitalGlobe)
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Space-based sensors devoted to intelligence gathering are poised to receive a major upgrade driven by the perceived need to identify and monitor a growing range of potential threats. The unstated goal is to create a massive satellite network forming the equivalent of a single, unblinking eye in space.

This new emphasis is likely to extend the reach of commercial satellite imagery providers—already the government’s primary source of unclassified mapping data and location-based imagery products. Much of this imagery is sharable with state and local governments, allies, coalition partners and even some nongovernment organizations.

“Outsourcing a large percentage of imagery requirements to the civil side not only makes sense, it’s essential,” says Mark Brender, executive director of the DigitalGlobe Foundation, which supports educational uses of geospatial technology. “Intelligence-gathering satellites can’t be everywhere at once, and, according to one member of Congress, each one of them costs as much as a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier.

“Commercial imagery provides resiliency and products that are good enough to meet a vast majority of intelligence imagery needs but at a much lower cost. As this technology migrates from the black world of intelligence to the white world of commerce, whole new services and jobs are created, like Google Earth.”

Resolution revolution

Relative sharpness of pixel resolution has long formed the dividing line between military and civil reconnaissance satellites, but that line is blurring. If the commercial providers have their way, the next generation of civil satellites may offer capabilities comparable to secret military spacecraft thought to offer resolutions measured in inches.

In May of last year, commercial provider DigitalGlobe asked for release from a government policy limiting them to resolutions of a half-meter. The company wants permission to sell 0.25-meter (9.8-inch) resolution imagery on the open market, the same degree of resolution it provides to some of its U.S. government customers.

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For comparison, the first civil imagery satellite, the LandSat launched in 1972, offered 90-meter ground resolution and even this, Brender says, “concerned some people in the U.S. government at that time.”

Resolution is largely a function of aperture (mirror) size and altitude, and the larger the mirror the sharper the resolution. Commercial imaging satellites now have about 1-meter diameter mirrors and the next logical step for them, according to Brender, is a 1.5-meter mirror.

The aperture size of military satellites wasn’t public knowledge until the GEOINT 2009 Symposium. James Clapper, then under secretary of defense for intelligence and now director of national intelligence, revealed during a keynote address that a new generation of electro-optical imaging satellites proposed for the Air Force would have an aperture size of 2.4 meters — the same as the Hubble Space Telescope.

In addition, the civil side may be moving ahead faster than the government in the critical arenas of data management and storage, as well as the complex ground station infrastructure needed to manage satellites through their life cycles.

“Things are changing rapidly,” says Jeff Harris, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), operator of spy satellites for the U.S. intelligence community. “The breadth and depth of applications and ease of processing have given mere mortals a power that used to reside only at the highest levels of government.”

“It’s a function of the demand curve, the same way it happened with aerial photography from [manned] aircraft and drones. First it was the optical products and ultimately it will happen with radar. Next you’ll see LIDAR on the commercial side. It’s simply a matter of cost point.

“When we were [developing] these capabilities, we often asked ourselves is it best to be No. 1? Does it make sense to put so much effort into developing the marketplace when the technology becomes ubiquitous so quickly?”

NRO's modernization plan

NRO is continually updating its satellite fleet and its most recent mission — NROL-39 — blasted into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base late last year. Although details surrounding the classified payload were not released, experts surmise it was a Topaz radar imaging satellite built as a replacement for the earlier Lacrosse/Onyx series ordered as part of the over-budget and partially scrapped future imaging architecture program.

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NROL-39’s mission logo — an all-seeing cartoon octopus with suction-cupped tentacles extending over the globe — brought NRO an uncharacteristic degree of public attention amid recent allegations regarding National Security Agency spying, as did the mission’s ambitious tagline: Nothing is beyond our reach.

While the NRO’s plans are opaque to outsiders, a recent declassified, heavily redacted report could provide a degree of insight. According to the agency’s FY 2012 congressional budget justification obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, NRO is looking for “evolutionary and revolutionary” improvements to geospatial intelligence, signals intelligence and multi-intelligence gathering, as well as improved satellite communications and ground systems.

A key focus area is “temporal responsiveness,” or the ability to re-task satellite sensors on the fly and thus make their output more relevant to high-level decision-makers and also to troops in the field. This effort could encompass machine-to-machine tasking; tip and cue; and new, “dynamic” user interfaces, the report states.

The report also reveals a desire to target specific individuals with multiple and varied sensor types. To fulfill this need to “identify, characterize and understand” single targets, the NRO is encouraging “unusual or unexpected” uses of its existing sensors and systems.

Improved pattern analysis is another priority. This effort will likely combine massive computerized data sets, varied data sources and high-speed processing as a means of tracking people by studying their normal routines — and deviations — from Earth orbit.

Nuts and bolts-wise, NRO appears sold on the utility of cutting-edge carbon-nanotube technology. It seeks to use it in a range of applications, among them memory logic, power cables, structures, lithium-ion batteries, radiation-hardened microelectronics and high-efficiency solar cells. Phased-array technology is being “matured” toward the goal of horizon-to-horizon coverage.

DARPA thinks big

DARPA is peering even further into the future. Its membrane optical imager for real-time exploitation (MOIRE) program aims to provide real-time images and video from geosynchronous orbit — roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. Current spy satellites are generally restricted to low Earth orbits due to size and weight constraints.

Instead of mirrors, MOIRE will employ lightweight polymer membrane optics. Though less efficient than glass, membrane optics are significantly lighter and could allow comparable performance with roughly one-seventh the weight of traditional systems, according to DARPA.

The membranes would be housed in thin metal “petals” that would bloom, flower-like, from a housed 20-foot package to a deployed diameter of some 68 feet. DARPA says these would be the largest telescope optics ever made, “dwarfing the glass mirrors in the world’s most famous telescopes.”

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