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The Rediff Special/M D Riti
The eye in the sky
Satellites and how they are used for spying
Did our space scientists see intruders on the other side of our border, and alert our defence forces? Or was there a failure on the part of our eyes in the sky, over the Kargil infiltration?
It is now said that one reason the West is lukewarm to Pakistan's claims this time, is that their satellite pictures have shown clearly that India is in the right. Why did our satellites not alert us early about movement on the other side of the border? These are some of the questions being raised in India right now.
The question of whether satellites are being used for spying has been raised in the context of all space programmes the world over.
"We are very blatantly a civilian programme driven by national needs," said Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman Dr K Kasturirangan in an interview to Rediff On The NeT some months ago. "We have no connection with the Indian defence programme," he added.
As ISRO under this present chairman is known to be a very transparent organisation, where scientists at all levels know everything about all ongoing research and projects, Kasturirangan's statement has a ring of truth.
However, anyone including the Indian defence establishment can buy satellite imaging from ISRO both in India and abroad. Indian buyers can purchase any imaging of their choice that is within the purview of Indian satellites from the National Remote Sensing Agency at Hyderabad at a price.
There is no restriction on who can be a customer. Likewise, any international establishment can purchase satellite pictures of India, whether of the borders or wherever, from the American agency Space Imaging.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration refuses to reveal whether the Indian defence establishment has purchased satellite images of sensitive areas from them, citing customer privacy as their reason.
However, there are restrictions the world over, mostly for defence reasons, on the resolution up to which satellite imaging can be sold. The permitted resolution in the United States is up to one metre, but in India, it is not closer than five metres resolution. Anyway, the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite series that is in orbit now has a resolution of only 5.8 metres.
What does this mean in layman's language? "We can see the trees in front of Vidhana Soudha," says an ISRO spokesman. "But we cannot see individual or even group human movement. Visibility is a major issue here."
Can movement of masses of people, like army battalions or groups of terrorists or infiltrators, be spotted? Maybe yes, maybe not; either nobody knows, or those in the know are not telling.
Satellites have been used for spying for many decades now all over the world. Science writer Mohan Sundara Rajan reminds us in his book Space Today that it was the Gulf War of 1991 that really showed us that satellites can enable military commanders to keep in touch with the battlefield and watch the movement of troops, ships, planes and missiles.
Unmanned passive military satellite programmes have been quietly developed in the US for many years now. The erstwhile USSR also diverted many of its satellites for reconnaissance after the nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, when it reportedly started a close sky vigil of China and also launched Vela satellites to detect treaty violations. Two American spy satellites had also become operational by then, after a U-2 high altitude US plane was shot down by the Russians.
It is common knowledge that hundreds of satellites have orbited the earth on military missions after that, but owner countries are seldom willing to acknowledge their existence. The Russians are believed to have generated several of these including some in their Cosmos series.
However, the use of radars aboard satellites consumes a lot of power and requires huge solar arrays to generate this. Therefore, satellites used for such purposes may have relatively short lifespans.
''The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction in space,'' says Sundara Rajan. In March 1983, the American president also proposed that anti-satellite weapon research should be resumed on an intensive scale.
If global tensions continue to escalate, the time may not be too far off when those countries with advanced space programmes, including India, might turn their attention towards developing both killer satellites and anti-satellite weapons.
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