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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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The Eye In the Sky

The United States launched its first spy satellite in 1959. Called Corona, the top secret project was actually the U.S.'s first space program. Each Corona satellite was equipped with specially cast, ultra-high-resolution lenses, specially made photographic film that could withstand the rigors of space, and reentry vehicles that could return the film to Earth. The cameras had a resolution better than five feet, or 1.5 meters. This means that any object on the ground that was at least five feet across—a car, a tent, or a missile silo—could be seen from space.

Panoramic photographs may be an obvious use of spy satellites , but they are just the beginning. Five-foot resolution allows a relatively sophisticated analysis. For example, an analyst can distinguish different kinds of aircraft from one another based on their silhouettes, which is essential for military planning. You can count the number of cars in a parking lot to determine how many people work at a particular building, be it a factory or a "safe house."

Unlike the U2 spy planes, satellites had the advantages of being unmanned and capable of conducting routine surveillance over incredibly large areas. Satellites offered a degree of precision and repeatability that was otherwise impossible. And the U.S. military made great use of its newfound capability. By photographing the same scene month after month, it was possible to closely monitor Soviet production, troop deployment, and even aspects of the country's ...

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