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A reconnaissance satellite or intelligence satellite (commonly, although unofficially, referred to as a spy satellite) is an Earth observation satellite or communications satellite deployed for military or intelligence applications.
The first generation type (i.e., Corona  and Zenit) took photographs, then ejected canisters of photographic film which would descend back down into Earth's atmosphere. Corona capsules were retrieved in mid-air as they floated down on parachutes. Later, spacecraft had digital imaging systems and downloaded the images via encrypted radio links.
In the United States, most information available is on programs that existed up to 1972, as this information has been declassified due to its age. Some information about programs prior to that time is still classified, and a small amount of information is available on subsequent missions.
On 16 March 1955, the United States Air Force officially ordered the development of an advanced reconnaissance satellite to provide continuous surveillance of "preselected areas of the Earth" in order "to determine the status of a potential enemy’s war-making capability".
There are several major types of reconnaissance satellite.
- Missile early warning
- Provides warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missile launches. Earliest known are Missile Defense Alarm System.
- Nuclear explosion detection
- Identifies and characterizes nuclear explosions in space. Vela (satellite) is the earliest known.
- Electronic reconnaissance
- Signals intelligence, intercepts stray radio waves. SOLRAD is the earliest known.
- Optical imaging surveillance
- Provides imaging of earth from space. Images can be a survey or close-look telephoto. Corona (satellite) is the earliest known. Spectral imaging is commonplace.
Examples of reconnaissance satellite missions:
- High resolution photography (IMINT)
- Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT)
- Communications eavesdropping (SIGINT)
- Covert communications
- Monitoring of nuclear test ban compliance (see National Technical Means)
- Detection of missile launches
On 28 August 2013, it was thought that "a $1-billion high-powered spy satellite capable of snapping pictures detailed enough to distinguish the make and model of an automobile hundreds of miles below" was launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base using a Delta IV Heavy launcher, America's highest-payload space launch vehicle.
...photo-reconnaissance satellites, for example, are enormously important in stabilizing world affairs and thereby make a significant contribution to the security of all nations.
During the 1950s, a Soviet hoax had led to American fears of a bomber gap. In 1968, after gaining satellite photography, the United States' intelligence agencies were able to state with certainty that "No new ICBM complexes have been established in the USSR during the past year." President Lyndon B. Johnson told a gathering in 1967:
I wouldn't want to be quoted on this ... We've spent $35 or $40 billion on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost. Because tonight we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn't need to do. We were building things we didn't need to build. We were harboring fears we didn't need to harbor.
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