Can Spy Satellites Find Osama Bin Laden?

Can Spy Satellites Find Osama Bin Laden?

Can Spy Satellites Find Osama Bin Laden?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 20 2001 8:07 PM

Can Spy Satellites Find Osama Bin Laden?

Can all the billion-dollar spy hardware orbiting Earth locate and identify Osama Bin Laden? And who else has satellite technology that matches that of the United States?

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Answer to the first question: no. Answer to the second: no one.

Let's just say the movie Enemy of the State is to spy-satellite technology what the Rev. Jerry Falwell is to geopolitical analysis. In that movie, spy satellites provided moving images of precise clarity of any desired location instantaneously. The reality is that spy satellites can produce still images with a resolution as high as 4 inches--once a satellite in fixed orbit passes over a desired location, which can take up to a few hours. (Click here for a good explanation of how resolution works.) The level of resolution means you can tell a person is there, but not be able to recognize a face, or you can identify a type of vehicle, but not (as is commonly believed) read a license plate. But even if the satellite technology can't find Bin Laden, it will be crucial to any military mission we undertake in Afghanistan. It will provide essential information on the terrain, as well as such intelligence as whether there are trucks or helicopters in the area.

The United States has about five such high-resolution satellites that are several hundred miles in space and orbit Earth about 15 times a day. Because at any given time most of Earth is either dark or has cloud cover, which prevents the production of these digital images, some of the satellites use radar technology, which can produce an image regardless of conditions, but one that is less sharp. We also have about 10 eavesdropping satellites, each orbiting the earth once a day from about 22,000 miles up, which can listen in on radio transmissions, cell phones, or walky-talkies but cannot detect face-to-face conversation. These operations are run primarily by the Department of Defense and cost us about $10 billion a year, or a third of our intelligence budget.

While the United States stands alone in the quantity and quality of our space spy apparatus, we are not out there alone. The Russians have probably one imagery satellite, which has a resolution of 1-to-2 feet, as well as several listening satellites. France and Israel have imagery capabilities of about 3 feet and India of 15 feet. There is also a fledgling commercial satellite imagery industry. One U.S. company, Space Imaging (you can see their photos of the World Trade Center here), has capabilities equal to that of France and Israel. While Bin Laden could in theory send a surrogate to them to try to order up some pictures of U.S. troop movements, it can take weeks or months for a commercial firm to fill an order. In addition, for national security purposes the government can limit the ability of private companies in the United States to collect or distribute their data.

Explainer thanks John Pike of globalsecurity.org  and Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.