Of the 2,797 operational satellites in orbit, only a few hundred are there for the purposes of spying. But their numbers are set to swell with the coming of satellite mesh networks.
Looking back from the digital age, the first generation of U.S. and Soviet spy satellites in the 1960s seem incredibly clunky. The Corona and Zenit satellites flew thousands of two-week surveillance missions in the 1960s, during which they took photographs that were then ejected in canisters that floated via parachute into the atmosphere below, where they were picked up in mid-air by aircraft equipped with “catching buckets.” The photographic film was then delivered to a photo laboratory for development.
Today, spy satellites are capable of staying in space for decades and live-streaming ultra-high-resolution imagery, eavesdropping on communications, instantly detecting hypersonic missile launches, and much more.
How Many Spy Satellites Are Up There?
Officially, we don’t know. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has declassified the details of most (but not all) of its satellite programs up to 1972. Beyond that, we rely on the observations of amateur sky-watchers and other groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA).
According to the UCSUSA’s satellite database, there are 2,787 operating satellites currently in orbit — not counting the numerous and growing number of defunct satellites or space junk. The U.S. operates 1,425 of these, China 382, Russia 172, and other countries have a combined 808 satellites.
Of the U.S. satellites, 208 are designated “military,” and at least 49 of those belong to the NRO. China is thought to have 63 military satellites, and Russia has 71.
The NRO’s satellites serve multiple purposes, supplying data such as signals intelligence to the National Security Agency (NSA), imagery intelligence to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), and measurement and signature intelligence to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Other purposes of spy satellites are missile early warning, nuclear explosion detection, and optical and radar imaging surveillance.
There Will Soon Be a Lot More Spy Satellites in Orbit
Most people have heard of Elon Musk’s scheme to launch 7,000+ low-cost communications satellites into low-Earth orbit to provide internet access to the entire globe. The NRO is now taking a similar approach to creating blanket coverage with its Project Blackjack mesh network.
At present, the U.S. military relies on a comparatively small number of extremely expensive, highly capable satellites; some of which are as sophisticated as the Hubble Space Telescope. But with many the size of a school bus, they are also highly vulnerable targets in wartime.
It’s guaranteed that if two spacefaring nations were to go to war, enemy spy satellites would be a high-priority target. Indeed, China, Russia, and the U.S. have all tested anti-satellite missiles in the past. And tensions in orbit are rising: two Russian satellites menaced a secret NRO satellite last year.
Replacing destroyed satellites would be extremely expensive, and of course there’s the risk that any replacement would simply be shot down as well. The NRO’s solution is to replace large, vulnerable satellites with a swarm of cheaper, much smaller satellites to create a mesh network. Project Blackjack would mean that if one satellite is shot down, the sheer number (currently unknown) of satellites swarming in orbit would allow the others to reposition rapidly to pick up the slack. Replacement satellites could then be launched quickly and cheaply to bring the mesh back up to full strength.
Project Blackjack will be supported by a program known as Pit Boss, a system that will manage the mesh network autonomously and ensure a flow of data to the U.S. military without the need for human intervention. The tiny satellites’ sensor payloads might include position, navigation, and timing systems, communications links between satellites, radio frequency systems, and infrared/electro-optical imaging.
The first Blackjack satellites are expected to be launched in 2021.