It would seem that for as long as there have been ships on the ocean, there’s been smuggling. The International Maritime Organisation requires ships to have AIS, the automatic identification system which is akin to a transponder on an airplane. However, if you don’t want to be found, you often turn off your AIS. So how do governments and insurance companies track so-called dark ships? Using satellite technology. A recent post in Global Investigative Journal tells the story of how lower-cost satellites are helping track these dark ships.
Optical tracking is the obvious method, but satellites that can image ships can be expensive and have problems with things like clouds. Radar is another option, but — again — an expensive option if you aren’t a big military agency with money to spend. A company called HawkEye 360 uses smallsats to monitor ship’s RF emissions, which is much less expensive and resource-intensive than traditional methods. Although the data may still require correlation with other methods like optical sensing, it is still cost-effective compared to simply scanning the ocean for ships.
We take orbital imagery for granted these days, but there was a time that it was high technology and highly secretive. [Scott Manley] has a good overview of the CIA’s Corona spy satellites, along with declassified images from the early days of the program.
It seems strange today, but the spy images needed high resolution and the only practical technology at the time was film. The satellite held a whopping 3,000 feet of film and, once shot, a capsule or bucket would return to Earth for retrieval and development. They didn’t make it to land — or at least they weren’t supposed to. The CIA didn’t want opponents sweeping up the film so an airplane was supposed to snag the bucket as it descended on a parachute, a topic covered in [Tom Nardi’s] article about the history of catching stuff as it falls from space.
The early cameras could see detail down to about 40 feet. By the end of the program in the 1970s, improved cameras could see down to 3 feet or less. Later satellites had a 3D-capable camera and multiple return buckets. The satellites were — officially — a program to expose biological samples to the space environment and return them for analysis. The Discover program was pure cover and the whole thing was declassified in 1992.
Of course, film from airplanes also had a role. Some spy satellites tried to scan film and send the data back, but that saw more use on lunar missions where returning a capsule to Earth was a lot more difficult.
On the 30th August 2019, the President of the United States tweeted an image of an Iranian spaceport, making note of the recent failed Safir launch at the site. The release of such an image prompted raised eyebrows, given the high resolution of the image, and that it appeared to be a smartphone photo taken of a classified intelligence document.
What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.
The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.
The Spy Who Photographed Me
With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.