Can I be seen from space?

The movie, “Body of Lies”, features a lot of surveillance from space, like “Four men just got out of the van.” For most of the movie I assumed they were using drones, but, at the end, it was clearly from space.

Hollywood. I know. But I recall, years ago, reading a Time Magazine article about spy satellites. It said that not only could a satellite read a Russian license plate, but that you could tell if a soldier had shaved that morning.

Set me straight. Can a satellite or a drone, without my knowledge, give that level of detail? Even if it is low resolution or in some crazy spectrum, could you, the CIA computer wizard say, “Four guys just got out of the van.” You need to say it in real time, from your desk in Washington. The van is in the Middle East, on a not-very-busy street in a minor city. Of course, you might also need to track this van to some destination.

I shaved just this morning. But you knew that didn’t you.

You missed a spot…

Well, look at the images you get on google maps. On some of them, you can tell the make and model of a car. I would imagine that the military has something better than that.

Tom Clancy, who was pretty careful in his research, talked about spy satellites that could read a pack of cigarettes in one of his novels, and that was back in the 80s or 90s.

From the wikipedia page on Google Maps:

Google cite of the height info here.

Download and install Google Earth. Or if you prefer something your tax dollars pay for, download and install NASA’s World Wind. Both allow you to zoom in from satellite images down to your exact location, all with publicly available imagery.

Now use your Doper imagination. If these two tools can do this, speculate what is not available to you via spy satellites.

Still not sure? Take a look at Hubble Space Telescope images. Now venture the thought the Hubble (circa 1990) is really a pared down civilian version of the NRO’s KH-11 spy satellite. Hubble points up while KH-11’s pointed down. The KH-11’s were compromised by by a CIA employee who sold the tech manuals to the Soviets. The latest NRO spy satelliteis several generations down the road from the KH-11, although the capabilities for the latest satellite are more signals spying and not imagery. Still, one can infer the spy imagery satellites (KH-13’s for example, and beyond) should be pretty good.

How good is some of this stuff? Well, the SR-71 Blackbird was operation from 1964 to 1998. It’s technology dates from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Oh, yeah. You need a bit of TP tissue under your chin.

Then do the calculations on what that angular resolution would amount to for a telescope pointed down. Nor could a spy satellite be much better than the Hubble: The Hubble (like all decent-quality scopes) is diffraction limited, which means that more resolution requires a larger aperture, and the Hubble is the biggest thing that can be launched in the Space Shuttle (the two were literally designed for each other).

Hubble’s angular resolution is something like 0.05 arcseconds. At an altitude of 500km, which is pretty typical for satellites, that corresponds to a resolution of 12 centimeters.

It’s actually probably a lot worse than that, though - that assumes no atmospheric effects, and unlike modern advanced ground observatories, Hubble doesn’t have any corrective equipment to deal with that so atmospheric shimmering would make images on the ground smeared to hell. Even in the most ideal conditions, if Hubble were pointed at the top of Mauna Kea on a very still, dry day, the resolution would be around 3 meters.