U.S. Launches New Spy Satellite for Secret National-Security Mission

Last week, a new U.S. spy satellite was launched into orbit as part of a secretive military program enabling the surveillance of Earth from space.

A live webcast showing the Delta IV rocket blast into the sky from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Tuesday was blacked out just three minutes after liftoff due to the sensitive nature of the mission, dubbed “NROL-25.”

An official at the Vandenberg base told the Los Angeles Times that the NROL-25 was part of a “national security payload,” which could mean it is to be used for any number of purposes, possibly including domestic surveillance. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 that U.S. intelligence agencies, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had approved the use of spy satellites for domestic purposes, such as for monitoring border security.

Behind the operation was the shadowy National Reconnaissance Office, which operates under the Department of Defense and is tasked with developing and operating U.S. spy satellites for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Specialist publication Spaceflight Now suggested that the NROL-25 satellite was likely rigged with “synthetic aperture radar,” a system capable of observing targets around the globe in daylight and darkness, able to penetrate clouds and identify underground structures such as military bunkers. Though the true capabilities of the satellites are not publicly known due to their top-secret classification, some analysts have claimed that the technology allows the authorities to zoom in on items as small as a human fist from hundreds of miles away.

At a time of acute economic unease, the Obama administration’s continued deployment of new spy satellites reveals the high value it is placing in the expansion of clandestine intelligence gathering programs. Six surveillance spacecraft in seven months launched in 2011, according to Space.com, and the NRO expects to launch a further three in the next five months, in keeping with its motto: “vigilance from above.” The total cost of NROL-25 has not been disclosed—but previous missions of a similar nature were priced at more than  $2 billion.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, U.S. government may be making use of its many spy satellites to keep an eye on the Middle East. Two months ago, for instance, the State Department published satellite imagery of Syria showing what is said was evidence of escalating violence between government and rebel forces. Similar aerial pictures of Libya were provided to CNN in March 2011 by an unnamed “intelligence source.”

Spy satellites are particularly useful for monitoring the development of potential nuclear capabilities in countries such as North Korea and Iran, where the United States has a limited presence on the ground. But that intelligence can be misleading—sometimes disastrously so. This was illustrated in the lead up the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the United Nations cited satellite images of “unexplained construction” as evidence Baghdad was possibly developing nuclear weapons. It was later discovered, infamously, that no such weapons had ever existed.