The Physics
An encyclopedia of scientific essays

Resolution of a Spy Satellite

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Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
Massive New Top Secret Spy-Satellite Program to Cost up to $25 Billion. Los Angeles Times.
7 June 2001.
"Declassified documents say the NRO launched 145 Corona satellites, each of which flew a few days at a time taking photographs with six- to 10-foot resolutions, compared with resolution of approximately six inches on current satellites." 180–300 cm
15 cm
Satellites System Overview Articles. America Online: Path: Spy Satellites. "Air force and CIA Discoverer 13 Series Spy Satellites 12 Inch Res" 30 cm
"Type KH-11 Spy Satellites, 10 cm/4 inch resolution." 10 cm
"KH-7 -1966 2" Resolution" 5 cm
Bennett, Andrew A. Autonomous Mapping With an AUV. [see table below] 1 m–14 km
(not spy satellites)
Silber, Kenneth. Spy Satellites: Still a Few Steps Ahead. 21 September 1999. "According to an estimate by the private Federation of American Scientists (FAS), three satellites operated by the US 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." 10 cm
Resolutions of a Selection of Imaging Platforms
(Note: these are not spy satellites.)
Visible Light System Typical Image Resolution
Landsat (Thematic Mapper) 60 m
Landsat (Multispectral Scanner) 120 m
SPOT 1-2 m
IR/Thermal System Typical Image Resolution
NOAA IR System 900 m
NASA/AVHRR1 1-14 km
Hybrid System Typical Image Resolution 
Airborne System
11 m

Satellites have many uses. They are used by the military to track launched missiles, military ships, and ground troops. Satellites find gold deposits, track weather systems, potential sites for oil companies, and other natural resources. They can also be used to to the source of disasters, such as the location of forest fires, and downed airplanes. But the most interesting use for the satellites is for law enforcement and intelligence. These are spy satellites.

A spy satellite can see airplanes crossing the border of a country, the polluting of a river by local companies, and the presence of illegal marijuana fields. It can also be used to find the location of suspected smugglers. The satellites make those crimes and other criminal activities more difficult.

Spy satellites have different resolutions. The best spy satellites can have a resolution from 5 to 10 cm. Plus, it being in space is a huge advantage because we have a bird's eye view of the earth and everything on it. For example, on a spy satellite with a 10 cm resolution, you can discern a soft-ball sized object from several hundred miles away. Using the satellite, you would be able to see the home run that causes the Yankees to win the World Series.


Jeannelle Louis -- 2001