Explained: Eyes in the sky! N Korea confirms test of a spy satellite, but what are spy satellites?

North Korea successfully launched the first-of-its-kind spy satellite on Monday, which will be operational for military use by April 2023. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Monday that North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration conducted the test on Sunday at the country’s Sohae satellite launching station in Cholsan, in North Pyongan Province.

But what are spy satellites? And why North Korea’s showcase of such a technology is a matter of concern around the world. 


What are spy satellites?

A spy satellite is a commonly used term for a reconnaissance or an intelligence satellite, which is either a communications satellite or an Earth observation satellite which is deployed for military or intelligence applications. Military satellites are used for several important functions, which include research, meteorology, and geodesy, in addition to reconnaissance. These special types of satellites are designed for surveillance and reconnaissance and provide information about enemy forces with their capabilities. 

What capabilities does a spy satellite possess?

i) They can keep an eye on the deployment of military forces and keep tabs on weapons development.

ii) They can also assess the damage caused by bombs and provide intelligence about enemy capability.

iii) They can also be used for remote sensing, analysing and recording information about the earth’s surface.

iv) They also play role in alerting the Missile Defence Alarm System by providing a warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missiles. 

v) Some powerful spy satellites can also detect nuclear detonation from space. 

What are the different types of spy satellites?

The spy satellites can be used specifically for a single operation depending upon the need of the operation by the military forces. 

1. Missile early warning satellite- It provides a warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missile launches. Example- Missile Defence Alarm System (MIDAS)

2. Nuclear explosion detection satellite- It will detect nuclear detonation from space. Example- Vela

Watch | North Korea fires ‘unidentified’ ballistic missile, says South Korea military

3. Electronic reconnaissance satellite- It can intercept stray radio waves and can be used by the signals corp of the military unit. Example- SOLRAD

4. Optical imaging surveillance satellite- They can be used for both military and commercial purposes, as they provide satellite images of a particular place using close-look telephotos. Example- KH-4B Corona

5. Radar imaging surveillance satellite- It can be used even at night for imaging, it can also flash clear pictures through the thick cloud cover. Example-  Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT)

From where does the concept of spy satellites originate?

The development of a reconnaissance satellite was officially demanded by the United States Air Force on 16 March 1955. The main reason behind this demand was to have continuous surveillance of some areas to determine the weapons-making capabilities of potential enemies.

Later on, under the UN project of Satellite Sentinel Project of 2010, reconnaissance satellites were deployed around Sudan and South Sudan to enforce human rights by regularly monitoring the atrocities in both contested areas. 

Additionally, global companies such as GeoEye and DigitalGlobe have also provided their commercial satellite imagery in support of natural disaster response and various humanitarian missions. 

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