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Satellite Reconnaissance: Secret Eyes in Space

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Reconnaissance and Space
Discoverer / Corona
Corona's Mission
Corona and the Cold War
Treaty Verification


The original purposes of the Corona project were to guard against a Soviet surprise attack and to provide information on targets in the U.S.S.R. should war occur. But as the United States and the Soviet Union entered cooperative agreements to reduce their nuclear arsenals, satellite reconnaissance unexpectedly gained a new role: watching to ensure that the treaty terms were being met.

Starting in the early 1970s, both nations began to rely on satellites to monitor compliance with arms control treaties. Now reconnaissance from space also warns of potentially dangerous threats to national security throughout the world.

Aviation Week (6-5-72, p.14)
386 k jpeg


In 1995 U.S. government officials ended the secrecy around Corona, opening its history to view. Details of reconnaissance satellites more recent than Corona remain officially secret, but some features are known.

Today's reconnaissance satellites are larger, comparable in size to the Hubble Space Telescope. They no longer return buckets of film from space. Instead, visual images are converted to digital data and transmitted to Earth.

Corona photo-analysts usually had to wait a week or more for photographs. Today images from reconnaissance satellites can be received in a matter of minutes, permitting almost instant analysis of a developing threat.

This image reportedly was made by a KH-11 camera. It shows a Soviet aircraft carrier under construction at a Black Sea shipyard. Objects as small as 0.3 meters (1 foot) across can be seen.

Courtesy of Jane's Defence Weekly

Soviet carrier, 8-11-84
250 k jpeg

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