The U.S. has a vast constellation of spy satellites in orbit. But these surveillance spacecraft have traditionally only been able to gaze down on a few small areas of the planet at a time, like flashlights probing the dark. And this, only with careful advance planning by human operators on the ground. America’s satellites helped monitor and map bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, but had to be told where to look by intel agents who gleaned key information from detained terror suspects and al-Qaeda couriers they were tracking.
The National Reconnaissance Office, America’s secretive spy satellite agency, wants to expand the current flashlight-like satellite deployment to a horizon-spanning, overhead spotlight that can illuminate vast swaths of the planet all at once. The agency also wants new spacecraft that can crunch the resulting data using sophisticated computer algorithms, freeing the satellites somewhat from their current reliance on human analysts.
If it works as planned, missions like the years-long hunt for bin Laden could become a lot easier for the U.S. But that’s assuming the technology can be developed on time and on cost.
A National Reconnaissance Office budget document for this fiscal year, obtained by Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes references to the technologies the secretive spy agency is acquiring today, and hopes to develop in coming years. Most of the details are blacked out in the heavily-redacted, 450-page document. But “it is still possible to glean at least fragmentary insight into the current state of the NRO,” Aftergood wrote. That includes the technological aspirations of the agency, which employs around 3,000 engineers, analysts and technicians around the globe.