The Russian military is apparently getting ready to launch a new generation of high-tech spy satellites.
It could help Moscow begin to match the as-yet-unrivaled resolution of America’s own eyes in orbit. But the U.S. space force isn’t standing still. While Russia races to catch up to the United States in one particular aspect of orbital reconnaissance—that is, imagery detail—the United States is plotting a sort of technological sidestep that could actually extend its lead over its rivals in space-based espionage.
Moscow reportedly plans to launch three of the new Hrazdan satellites—one each in 2019, 2022, and 2024. Essentially orbital telescopes that point down toward Earth, the Hrazdans will replace Russia’s two existing Persona spy satellites.
Moscow has come to rely heavily on its military spacecraft to support long-distance deployments. Spy satellites, including the Personas, have played a central role in the Russian intervention in Syria, helping to spot targets for Russian bombers and cruise missiles.
The Hrazdans are built around huge, finely-crafted lenses. Where the Personas feature 1.5-meter-diameter lenses, the Hrazdans boast lenses with a diameter greater than two meters, according to Kommersant, a Russian newspaper.
The Personas maintain circular orbits around Earth at an altitude of 700 kilometers. At that altitude, the older sats’ lenses afford them a 31-centimeter resolution, Ted Molczan, an independent satellite-tracker and space expert, told The Daily Beast. In other words, when a Persona takes a snapshot of the Earth’s surface, each pixel in the image represents an area 31 centimeters by 31 centimeters.
At the same altitude, the Hrazdans would significantly improve on the Personas. Their resolution could go as high as 24 centimeters, according to Molczan.
“This is a significant upgrade for the Russian capabilities,” Brian Weeden, a space expert with the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
But while Russia focuses on improving its spy satellites’ resolution, the United States is working hard to make its own spacecraft more responsive—and combining them with for-hire, commercial satellites. That’s a major, major shift for the American military and intelligence communities.The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which operates America’s main spy satellites on behalf of the military and intelligence communities, can get resolutions as high as seven centimeters from its KH-11 Keyhole spy satellites, whose 2.4-meter-diameter lenses formed the basis of NASA’s famous Hubble telescope.
But there’s a catch. The KH-11s traditionally maintain elliptical orbits that dip as low as 260 kilometers and climb as high as 1,000 kilometers. At the highest altitude, the Keyholes’ resolution degrades to 28 centimeters, Molczan said. It’s only at the low point that the U.S. sats’ can peer down with seven-centimeter resolution.
The elliptical orbits are no accident. They allow the satellites to modulate between viewing huge swathes of Earth at low resolution and much smaller sections of the planet at high resolution. By coordinating the orbits of the KH-11s—there are apparently four of the spy sats in operation—the NRO can maintain simultaneous wide and narrow surveillance.
But the NRO apparently has a new and, it clearly believes, better scheme in mind—one that could vastly improve America’s space reconnaissance capability without simply counting on ever-larger lenses on successive generations of spy satellites.
The NRO appears to be shifting its KH-11s in lower, more circular orbits—and is set to continue this deployment pattern as new Keyholes come on line starting in 2018. “There are indications that the next-generation KH-11 may adopt a 260-kilometer-by-500-kilometer orbit, which would maintain the present seven-centimeter best resolution, but significantly improve the overall resolution around the orbit,” Molczan explained.
That would leave gaps in wide-area surveillance compared to the traditional orbital pattern. But the NRO has a plan, according to Molczan. “The task of lower-resolution, wide-area coverage would shift to commercial satellites.”
Private firms such as DigitalGlobe sell space-based imagery at resolutions as high as 30 centimeters, the current cap under U.S. law. Weeden told The Daily Beast that companies now possess the technology to collect 25-centimeter-resolution imagery, even if they can’t legally sell it to private users.
DigitalGlobe’s satellites orbit at 770 kilometers, near the KH-11s’ old peak. The NRO could substitute imagery from DigitalGlobe or another company for the lowest-resolution Keyhole imagery—25 to 30 centimeters—and free up the KH-11s to do what they do best—take detailed snapshots at very, very high resolution.
At the same time, the NRO is improving its satellite-communications infrastructure. Spy satellites are really just remote-controlled cameras. To make use of their imagery, analysts on the ground must download the photos.
That’s only possible when the spacecraft has a line of sight to a ground station and can beam down a digital file. Alternatively, the spy sat can beam its data to a constellation of dedicated, very-high-altitude “satellite data system” relay spacecraft that stays in constant contact with controllers on the ground.
The United States is the world leader in these SDS relay sats—and might be on the verge of pulling even farther ahead of rivals. “The U.S. appears to be investing a lot more in that than the Russians or anyone else,” Weeden commented. The NRO generally doesn't disclose the exact nature of its satellite launches, but Weeden and Molczan both said they believe the most recent NRO launch, on July 28, involved a new SDS satellite.
So yes, the Russians are reportedly getting new spy satellites. They’re apparently pretty sophisticated. But that doesn’t mean the Russia is pulling ahead of the United States in the field of space reconnaissance. “From what I can tell, the U.S. still has a pretty sizable advantage at least qualitatively, if not quantitatively,” Weeden said.