CIA espionage missions rely on spy satellites

How many prying eyes are up in outer space peering down on us? Globally, there are between 2,500 and 2,800 active satellites, including those used for non-surveillance purposes, such as the large satellite internet constellations, like SpaceX’s Starlink. Military and intelligence agency spy satellites account for about a fifth of them, so there are roughly 500–560 spy satellites overhead.

All super-power countries operate fleets of hi-tech spy satellites. Russia has over 160 satellites, and one hundred of them are military spacecraft. In comparison, China has more than 320 satellites, including almost 105 military surveillance spacecraft.

The cameras in spy satellites have powerful zoom-in capabilities; they can photograph license plates clearly from one hundred miles up in space, and with high-resolution imaging can zoom in on your face or even smartphone. Until recently, spy satellites had an imaging resolution of 5–6 inches, which means they could see something 5 inches or larger on the ground. They could not read your house number, but they could tell whether there was a bike parked in your driveway. The imaging technology has changed, indeed! The satellite image measurements used to be in meters… now they are in centimeters. Rumor has it that U.S. high-resolution spy satellites can read newspaper headlines in Red Square!

NOAA satellites have less “spying” capabilities then reconnaissance satellites, although they still give us astounding views of the Earth. No, NOAA satellites can’t see into your homes, or peer through your roof or walls to the people inside. But spy satellites can. They also peer through clouds to record objects on the ground with the use of synthetic aperture radar, which emits a signal that bounces off the sensed object and back to the satellite. It can determine the height of an object down to a millimeter.

In my spy thriller PENUMBRA DATABASE, CIA spymaster Corey Pearson is in the Bahamas, eating lunch at an open-air restaurant, while talking on a secure Sat-link phone to his supervisor at Langley. His CIA boss calmly tells him what he is eating. He was secretly being photographed by a IMINT satellite, 110 miles up in space!

I also discuss spy satellites in the new spy thriller MISSION OF VENGEANCE. Here are a few snippets:

Snippet 1: “We’re operating at Obscure Transgression. The OT team is officially activated although I already called in team eleven and they’re here now. The Dirty Tricks Division is sailing from Abaco, Bahamas as we speak, and Morrison is repositioning the stealth satellites to fly over Bocharov’s estate. In fact, the IMINT satellite is snapping pictures right now.”

Snippet 2: The IMINT, image intelligence, satellite hovered 310 miles above Yury Bocharov’s estate, snapping high-resolution, color photos of every square foot of the mansion, outer buildings, and grounds. The images were relayed to General Morrison’s computer at CBIF headquarters in Key West. CBIF owned eight safe houses in Key West and one of them housed satellite image interpreters who masqueraded as drywallers. A sign out front of their unassuming house read “Key West Drywallers.”

Inside the fake drywall front company, two men and a woman watched computer screens as the satellite continued mapping the estate. Two older men sat on a patio in the back of the mansion. They directed the satellite to zero in on their faces and snap photos of each. With one-foot optical resolution imaging capabilities, each face filled an entire computer screen. The facial photos were enhanced, then relayed to Morrison’s computer. General Morrison sent them immediately to Corey’s computer inside the Sosua safe house.

Suddenly, the secure laptop hummed, and the screen lit up. One of the Key West Drywall agents appeared. “Sir, we have an intercept from the COMINT satellite over the Bocharov estate. We’re monitoring the chatter, mainly the radio waves from text messages, emails and downlinks that go from the estate to the relay masts. This one is from Bocharov’s cell phone. He just ordered fifteen tickets from Ticketmaster to a Jimmy Buffett concert.”

Snippet 3: “Not much. He came up NIF on the NGI system. He speaks with a deep Russian accent and dropped off the tie clasp at Bocharov’s mansion. Our mission is to find out who the hell he is and what’s on the memory stick. The data on it was important enough for them to murder an American family. The IMINT satellite Morrison called in got a photo of Bocharov talking to another man at the mansion…he may be our unknown.”

End of Snippets

I often mention the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in my spy thrillers, for it is perhaps America’s most super-secret spy agency. It operates our surveillance satellite fleet. Its spy satellites capture signals and images that are critical to keeping us out of harm’s way. Not only do they reveal threats to the homeland, but they also provide battlefield awareness, support counternarcotics, survey the damage from natural disasters, and much more. Enjoy the video “The NRO: America’s Eyes and Ears in Space”.

Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community, and relishes traveling to the Florida Keys and Key West, the Bahamas and Caribbean. He combines both passions in his Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Check out his latest spy thriller: MISSION OF VENGEANCE.



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