Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


That Remote Look: History of Sensing Satellites

Posted on | March 27, 2017 | No Comments

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

– President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

During U.S. President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University, where he dedicated the new Manned Spacecraft Center in nearby Houston, he stressed that not only would the US go to the Moon, but it would “do the other things.” He mentioned:

“Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the Earth. Some 40 of them were made in the United States of America. Transit satellites are helping our ships at sea to steer a safer course. TIROS satellites have given us unprecedented warnings of hurricanes and storms, and will do the same for forest fires and icebergs.”

The TIROS-1 satellite (shown above) was launched on April 1, 1960, from Cape Canaveral, Florida and carried two TV cameras and two video recorders. The satellite was primarily built by RCA, a major TV and radio manufacturer. Short for Television InfraRed Observational Satellite, TIROS weighed 122 kg and only stayed up for 78 days. Nevertheless, it showed the practicality of using the dynamics of electromagnetism for viewing cloud formations and observing patterns for weather event prediction.

President Dwight Eisenhower had been secretly coordinating the space program as part of the Cold War since the early 1950s. He had become accustomed to the valuable photographic information obtained from spy planes. When the new administration took office in early 1953, tensions with Communist countries were increasing rapidly. After the USSR conducted successful atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, he considered satellites a crucial new Cold War technology.

Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy identified aerospace as a decisive component of future US military strategy. The D-Day successful invasion of Europe, which he had managed as the head of the Allied Forces during World War II, had been meticulously reconnoitered with low and high altitude photography from a variety of reconnaissance aircraft. Given the growing nuclear capacity of the USSR, he particularly wanted satellites that could assess how rapidly the Communists were producing its long-range bombers and where they were being stationed. As the Soviets began to deploy rocket technology siphoned from defeated Nazi Germany, it was important to locate and monitor launchpads with nuclear ballistic missiles.

The top-secret Corona spy program was the first attempt to start mapping the Earth from space with satellites. Their Corona spacecraft were built by Lockheed Martin for the CIA and Air Force and equipped with 70mm “Keyhole” cameras. These started with an imaging resolution of approximately 40 feet, enough to locate airfields and large rockets.

The destruction of an American U-2 spy plane during a USSR overflight on May 1, 1960, accelerated the need for satellite-based surveillance. President Eisenhower had proposed an “open skies” plan at a 1955 Summit conference in Geneva with England, France, and Russia that would allow each country to make flights over each others’ sovereign territory to conduct inspections of launchpads capable of rocketing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) into space. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had refused the proposal and ordered missiles to bring down the high-altitude US spy plane. Khrushchev took pleasure in displaying the wreckage for the international press and in the following show trial for pilot Francis Gary Powers. The U-2 would once again show its value when it detected Soviet missiles in Cuba, but the new competition to conquer space would dramatically improve aerospace technology and the ability to see from space.

Like most of the early US attempts to achieve space flight, the first Keyhole-equipped satellites failed to achieve orbit or suffered other technical failures. The US had also obtained its rocket technology from the Nazis, and early adaptions such as the A-4 and Redstone rockets required much testing before reliable launches occurred. This knowledge was applied to the next generation Thor-Agena rockets that were used as launch vehicles for Corona spy satellites from June 1959. By the late summer of 1960, a capsule containing the first Keyhole film stock was retrieved in mid-air by an Air Force cargo plane as it parachuted back down to Earth. By 1963, Keyhole resolution had increased to 10 feet and to 5 feet by 1967.

It was the USSR though that set the precedent for orbital overflight with its Sputnik satellites. While Eisenhower had sought at the Geneva Summit to assure the world of its peaceful intentions in space, the Soviets launched an R-7 ICBM 100 km into space two years later with a payload the size of a beach ball called the Sputnik. It is still a matter of speculation whether Eisenhower baited the USSR into going into orbital space first, but when the US and other countries around the world failed to protest the overflight of the Sputnik, it set the legal precedent for satellites flying over other countries.

As the “Space Race” heated up during the mid-1960s, rocket capabilities improved and new applications were being conceived. The Mercury and Gemini space capsules began to use innovative photographic technologies to capture Earth images. Weather satellites like the TIROS-1 had been monitoring Earth’s atmosphere since 1960, and the idea of sensing land and ocean terrains was being developed. Although the details of the spy satellites were highly classified, enough information about the possibilities of high-altitude sensing of earth terrains circulated in the scientific community. In 1965, William Pecora, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), proposed that a satellite program could gather information about the natural resources of our planet. The idea of remote sensing was born, and the USGS would partner with NASA to take the lead.

NASA, the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had been created in 1958 to engage the public’s imagination and support for the civilian uses of spacecraft. The Apollo program was conceived as early as 1960 and eventually would reach the Moon. The program also sparked reflection, not just on reaching the apex of an extraordinary human journey, but on the origins of that trip. We went to the Moon, but we also discovered our home planet, what Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth.

History was made on Aug. 23, 1966, when the first photo of the Earth from the perspective of the Moon was transmitted by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I. It was received at the NASA tracking station at Robledo De Chavela near Madrid, Spain. The image was taken during the spacecraft’s 16th orbit and was the first view of Earth taken by a spacecraft from the vicinity of the Moon. The Lunar Orbiter was a series of five unmanned missions designed to help select landing sites for the Apollo. In mapping the Moon’s surface, they pioneered some of the earliest remote sensing techniques.

In 1966, the USGS and the Department of the Interior (DOI) began to work with each other to produce their own Earth-observing satellite program. They faced a number of obstacles including budget problems due to the increasing costs of the war in Vietnam. But they persevered, and on July 23, 1972, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) was launched. It was soon called Landsat 1, the first of the series of satellites launched to observe and study the Earth’s landmasses. It carried a system of cameras built for remote sensing by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) called the Return Beam Vidicon (RBV). Three independent cameras sensed different spectral wavelengths to obtain visible and near infrared (IR) photographic images of the earth. RBV data was processed to 70 millimeter (mm) black and white film rolls by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and then analyzed and archived by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

The second device on Landsat-1 was the Multispectral Scanner (MSS), built by the Hughes Aircraft Company. It provided radiometric images of the Earth through the ability to distinguish very slight differences in energy and continues to be a major contributor to Earth sensing data.

The Landsat satellite program has been the longest-running program for the acquisition and archiving of satellite-based images of Earth. Since the early 1970s, Landsat satellites have constantly been circling the Earth, taking pictures and collecting “spectral information” and storing them for scientific and emergency management services. These images serve a wide variety of uses – from gauging global agricultural production to monitoring the risks of natural disasters.

A successful partnership between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Landsat’s critical role is monitoring, analyzing, and managing the earth resources needed for sustainable human environments. It manages and provides the largest archive of remotely sensed – current and historical – land data in the world. Landsat uses a passive approach, measuring light and other energy reflected or emitted from the Earth. Much of this light is scattered by the atmosphere, but techniques have been developed for the Landsat space vehicles to dramatically improve image quality. Each day, Landsat-8 adds another 700 high-resolution images to an unparalleled database, giving researchers the capability to assess changes in Earth’s landscape over time. Landsat-9 will have even more sophisticated technologies when it is launched into space in 2020.

Since 1960, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worked with NASA to build and operate two fleets of satellites to monitor the Earth. One is the Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) that fly north and south over the Arctic and Antarctica regions. These make about 14 orbits a day with each rotation covering a different band of the Earth.

The other are the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) that operate in the higher geosynchronous “Clarke Belt.” This position allows them to measure reflected radiation and some Earth-emitted energies from a single stationary source over a set locations. It then records a wide range of atmospheric and terrestrial information for weather and potential disaster warnings.

Both the Landsat satellites, and the GOES satellites, provide a constant stream of data and imagery to help understand weather events and earth resources. Both are vital to observing current meteorological and land-based events that warrant monitoring, study, and reporting.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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