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Spy Satellites

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I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
The Alan Parsons Project, "Eye in the Sky"

Much-beloved of Spy Fiction and a technical element that they most frequently get wrong, the omnipresent "eye-in-the-sky" is always shown to be a whole lot more useful than it truly is.

Satellite views are usually shown to be immune to clouds, 100 percent reliable, always available, and seem to be right over the target just when they are needed. The biggest error, however, is showing a live fixed video feed from orbit.

It is important to separate satellites into two main categories: LEO (low earth orbit) and GEO (geosynchronous earth orbit). The GEO satellites are able to stay over one location indefinitely, but cannot be used for spying purposes; their extreme altitude means that the image resolution would be too low to be useful. GEO satellites are used for communication and meteorological purposes. LEO satellites, on the other hand, are capable of capturing detailed images, but move so fast that they cannot keep a constant watch on a location, often circling the Earth several times a day. Furthermore, they are extremely vulnerable to cloud cover and smokescreens. The only ones that aren't affected by this are the ones equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radars, but they can only see metallic objects. Which does mean, incidentally, that they are very good for spying on tank formations.

Consider the fact that most spy satellites orbit around 200 miles or so above the ground. This means that it has to travel at just below five miles per second to stay in orbit. The amount of live feed you can get, therefore, is next to zero and you'll have to have the satellite rotating to do it. Slanting will occur very rapidly. If you want to hold a satellite over a place for any major length of time, you need to put it into geostationary orbit (22,240 miles over the equator) or an elliptical 'Molniya-style' orbit. Any images will be uselessly slanted, unless you happen to want good shots of Ecuador and have a really powerful zoom lens. Essentially, this is one of the many sub-tropes of Artistic License – Space.

Data processing also consumes a certain amount of time. Nobody should be, on the fly, searching footage of a city for a specific license plate, for example.

If the live satellite feed looks just like recycled footage from earlier in the episode, then it's a Magical Security Cam.

It should also be pointed out that according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' 2007 Military Balance, the US only has three visual satellites in orbit.

Compare Surveillance as the Plot Demands, often an integral component in Sinister Surveillance. Also compare/contrast Kill Sat, which kills people instead of just watching them.

When done in the modern context with UAVs, it is far more justifiable since they can be redirected much more quickly to where the operator wants the camera to be pointed.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Near in Death Note offers to use one of these to keep an eye on a hostage crisis, but it's forgivable as it makes absolutely no impact on the plot.
  • Used very straight in the Read or Die OVA. A spy satellite identifies a villain talking to The Mole in a crowded Indian village. Then after a few seconds of footage, the villain looks up, sees the satellite, and the feed cuts off. (We briefly see that he knocked it out of orbit with his extensible staff.)
  • The SWORD intelligence agency in Vexille has tried to spy on Japan but has repeatedly failed because of the electromagnetic shield that surrounds the archipelago. The shield scrambles all outgoing light waves which makes spy satellites unable to see anything but static. The main plot's infiltration mission is to get a team into Japan so they can set up a beacon that will act as a central focal point so a satellite can get a clear image of the country.

    Fan Works 
  • In Aeon Entelechy Evangelion the military has a few satellites that were not shot down by the Migou. Unfortunately for them, the effectiveness of these satellites is low because of the Migou orbital superiority.
  • Neon Exodus Evangelion has, in the final chapter, all the spy satellites controlled by X-COM, since they sent up Raiden interceptors to destroy any satellites SEELE had. They're pretty much only used for searching for the villain's base.
  • Unsurprisingly downplayed in Calvin & Hobbes: The Series - Calvin tries to make a camera into something like this.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Lampshaded in Enemy of the State. When Dean meets Brill on a rooftop, The Government agents assigned to track Dean try to determine Brill's identity, but can only see the top of his head. When one agent asks why they can't just move the camera, the technician replies that the satellite is at least 200 miles in the air, so the only angle it can look at is straight down.
  • Averted in Behind Enemy Lines. When the Admiral uses a spy satellite to try and find his lost pilot, he is only able to see the area for a few short minutes before the satellite moves out of position.
  • Zigzagged in Patriot Games.
    • When CIA intelligence analysts use a spy satellite to figure out which of several camps belongs to a rogue faction of the IRA, they are forced to use a still picture and to make some rather ambitious inferences to determine that the camp belongs to the bad guys - the camera can't show their faces.
    • When an DGSE platoon raids the camp at night, the infrared spy satellite watching the action appears to give a perfect 'camera in the sky' view of the action. As it only takes a few minutes to perform the actual strike part of the raid, orbital mechanics (which get discussed) aren't a problem in that particular instance -in fact, the raid was planned specifically so they could watch it on the satellite.
    • The terrorists are aware of when the satellite passes over and make sure they're inside a tent at those times, so Jack Ryan has to get his CIA superiors to change the orbit of the satellite to catch them unawares.
  • The orbital particle beam cannon in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory had a video lens that was powerful enough to focus on the breasts of a topless sunbather in Los Angeles in crystal-clear real time.
  • Men in Black plays it straight when K is watching his lost love, although it does appear to turn into a freeze-frame as she looks upward.
  • Spies Like Us opens with a satellite marked "NO MILITARY VALUE". The satellite promptly exposes a camera and takes orbital photos of a Soviet missile.
  • Soundwave in Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen takes this to the natural extreme, using a satellite as his alt mode. He can even hijack other spy satellites.
  • Used in GoldenEye: After detonation of the first GoldenEye satellite above Severnaya fried all satellites in the area, the British secret service brings in another satellite to observe the wreckage... And Bond notices something moving.
  • In Déjà Vu (2006), Doug is initially told that "Snow White" uses a series of satellites to generate extremely-detailed images at ground level with a 4-day delay due to the complexity of the program. The same complexity is also explained as the reason why no recording and rewinding is possible. This is a lie, as Doug becomes suspicious and is eventually told that they're actually viewing the events through a wormhole.
  • In Ice Station Zebra, the MacGuffin is a photographic capsule ejected from a Soviet spy satellite — containing images of both Soviet and American ICBM silos — that lands near the eponymous Arctic ice station. The film and the novel it's adapted from were set in the early 1960s, so they couldn't transmit an image with a high resolution.
  • In Street Fighter, an Allied Nations satellite serves to notice and, at a great distance, depict the aftermath of a truck full of explosives crashing into Bison's camp; we get an ever-so-slightly distorted live feed, relevant credentials summoned from some database, and a brief indication of the new status: (Captured by Bison Forces).
  • Wrong is Right opens with spy satellites eclipsing the Earth and the protagonist Waxing Lyrical about them. Strangely they have nothing to do with the plot, which involves terrorists planning to acquire two suitcase nukes, which aren't exactly carried around in the open where spy satellites can see them.

  • Several of Philip José Farmer's novels include spy satellites. In the Dayworld series, they are a weapon of a future police state — er... sharing, caring, one-world government. Interestingly, even though the articles were written in the 1970s/early '80s, Farmer has the satellites hooked up to gait-analysing computers. It adds to the paranoid atmosphere: once the characters become fugitives, they have to wear wide-brim hats and spend every moment on the street walking in a deliberately different pattern.
  • Jack Ryan:
    • As in the film version, Spy Satellites played a central role in the plot of Patriot Games, with a portion of the plot centering around the CIA personnel trying to outwit the Northern Irish extremists who made a point of avoiding being outside when the American satellites passed over head. At one point, a satellite gets a photo of a woman in a low-cut dress, as viewed from above. One of the analysts estimates that she had to be a C-Cup or bigger, because the limited resolution of the satellites meant that they wouldn't be able to see her cleavage if she were any smaller.
    • Spy satellites show up in other Ryanverse stories, but usually in a realistic fashion: with still photos, known trajectories, and otherwise limited ability. When spy satellites are not appropriate (for example, in Without Remorse, part of which involves the Vietnam War), drones and UAVs are used. The Bear and The Dragon actually focuses on how Dark Star UAVs (essentially stealthy Predator drones) dramatically shift the balance of power in war, allowing the undertrained, undermanned, very poorly equipped Russian army to defeat the otherwise overwhelmingly superior Chinese invaders.
    • Tom Clancy himself used the commercial variety for research on the Dushanbe complex for Cardinal of the Kremlin. It earned him a visit from the FBI, who were concerned he may have been given photos from a "real" spy satellite.
  • In Jack McDevitt's Chindi (part of the Priscilla Hutchins series), Hutch and friends find alien spy satellites around an alien world. The aliens went extinct in a global war several thousand years ago, but the satellites are much more advanced than anything this race ever built. Apparently someone wanted a front-row seat for the war. Even more disturbing is the fact that most of the satellites date back to the time of the war, but one of them is less than 100 years old. It's later discovered that the satellites are an extensive network monitoring developing civilizations. This includes Earth, though the satellites there have shut down to avoid detection and are only programmed to reactivate if the radio envelope goes dead.
  • Pandora and Malachi tap into the existing network of these in Edenborn to keep track of the separate camps and eventually to find the cure for Black Ep.
  • One San Antonio novel set before the space age has, as a MacGuffin, a series of unidentifiable photographs. Only at the end do we learn that a rocket released a camera at its apex, which then took increasingly detailed photos on the way down.
  • Artemis Fowl: Foaly makes extensive use of human spy satellites. And then there's the villain who claims the CIA changed a satellite's orbit just to track him...
  • In the Red Stars books, the large-scale naval battle between an American carrier battle group and a Soviet one from a parallel world has the Americans using satellites to their advantage, especially since the Negative Space Wedgie that has brought the Soviets to our world cover the whole are in mist. Then the Soviets perform their scans and are astonished to discover orbital satellites right above them. In their world, where their conflict with the Americans is anything but "cold", no orbital satellite is possible, since the other side just shoots it down to prevent this trope. Only one-shot parabolic satellites are employed. The Soviets then use the surface-to-space missiles they have for just such a purpose to shoot down the American satellites, blinding them.
  • The Martian:
    • It's thanks to their satellites around Mars that NASA learns first of Mark Watney's survival, then of his excursion to salvage the Pathfinder probe. This gives them enough days to restore their old Pathfinder communication equipment, and re-establish contact within one day of Watney repairing the probe.
    • It's later mentioned that the NSA helps the rescue effort by running NASA satellite photos through some Enhance Button algorithms they use for their own, actual spy satellites.
  • Far Out, Brussel Sprout!, a book of Australian schoolyard rhymes, has a version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" that replaces the last two lines with:
    Don't you know, you little mite?
    I'm really a Russian sattelite!
  • At the start of Fallen Dragon, Lawrence Newton wears a wide-brimmed hat for an illicit meeting so he won't be spotted by the satellites of the Mega-Corp he works for, which is Properly Paranoid when he gets into a Bar Brawl and has to use lethal force.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 24 has had this one several times. In its first use George Mason asked for thirty-second intervals. The footage shown were blatantly more like a picture every five seconds.
  • Alias constantly relies on this to feed intel to its super-agents as they work in the field. Many of the show's plot points hinge on this trope.
  • Used often in Power Rangers in Space, though all PR seasons have used it to some extent whenever the Rangers are watching a monster attacking the City of Adventure. Unless it's specifically a tech-based season though, this is generally Magitek instead of full out Spy Satellites.
  • NCIS in "Eye Spy".
  • Jericho (2006)'s track record with satellites is... schizophrenic. On the one hand, you get reasonable-looking still photos from satellites. On the other, you get Hawkins' satellite feeds... which appear to be filmed right at ground level.
  • Fringe is guilty of this one to a large degree. Not only did they pull up spy sat footage of an area, but it was from hours ago when there would have been no reason for a spy sat to even be looking there. The writers apparently want the viewer to believe that the entire surface of the Earth is not only under constant surveillance but also being archived. Oh...yes...of course...that only happens on that TV show... yes...that's all we suspect.
  • Generally averted in The Unit, which uses still photos.
  • In an episode of Thunder in Paradise, one of the heroes looks for a spy satellite nearby to hack into from his Cool Boat, finds one, and acts as a Mission Control for his partner.
  • Strike Back has semi-accurate depictions of slanting problems and the satellites drifting out of position, but otherwise adheres to this.
  • JAG: In the second season episode "Rendezvous", a murder case is solved by obtaining photos from a Russian spy satellite showing that the defendant's car was present at the scene of the murder.

  • "The Electric Eye" by Judas Priest is sung from a point of view of a spy satellite.
    You think you've private lives
    Think nothing of the kind
    There is no true escape
    I'm watching all the time
  • "Killafornia to the Belly" by Abstract Rude:
    Most of y'all don't know your rights
    Who authorized being monitored by satellites?

    Tabletop Games 
  • While you can't actually buy one in the game, GURPS: High-Tech discusses the flaws of the "Eye In The Sky". Along with limits of the technology itself, an untrained character can't even determine what the readouts mean.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Imperial Guard is known to make use of a "sensornet", which includes satellites and orbiting ships' sensor arrays. One Ciaphas Cain novel does mention the geosynchronous ones being on the planet's equator.
  • BattleTech has several types of spy satellites available for use under advanced rules. The benefits they provide vary based on which type is in use.

    Video Games 
  • Used with irony in one of the Splinter Cell games. During one of the idle conversations of a guard, he mentions nobody uses spies or bugs anymore, they use satellites. Guards aren't exactly geniuses in the game (though they aren't crazy either), and he was definitely wrong about nobody using spies. Obviously, as you are one.
  • The Americans in the Command & Conquer: Generals universe make extensive use of spy satellites to track GLA movements. Notably, the satellites in the cutscenes primarily do this by photography instead of video recording. In-game, the HQ (and the upgraded GLA Radar Van) has a standard reveal-a-circular-area scan, but the reveal of every enemy unit and building is done via the detention camp's interrogations.
  • In XCOM: Enemy Unknown , your primary means of tracking UFO activity is putting satellites in orbit to watch over a specific country. Taken to a ridiculous extreme in one cutscene, which has Bradford ordering a satellite to move to a certain set of coordinates. When it spots nothing, he orders it to switch to a thermal camera, and then finally X-Ray mode, which gives you the layout of the alien base.
    • The hologlobe also depicts the satellites as hovering directly above their assigned country, but that could be symbolic: Since they're (usually) meant to watch airspace rather than the ground, they could be over the equator without worrying to much about slanting.
    • If a UFO is allowed to escape, then there's a chance the aliens will locate and shoot down one of your satellites. A foundry upgrade can reduce the profile of your satellites, making them harder to detect.
  • StarCraft: The Terran's scanning ability seems to use one, as the building that uses it sports a huge receptor dish.
  • Dawn of War: The Imperial Guard has a sensor ability from their HQ, and one of their upgrades increases weapon range thanks to satellite-transmitted data.
  • Empire Earth: The satellite is an endgame unit that hovers in place to provide vision. It's targeted as a plane, meaning it can only be targeted by Anti-Air and planes, but can freely enter and exit the atmosphere on space maps.
  • In some Civilization games, researching Satellites on the Tech Tree completely removes the Fog of War for that civilization. In others, it only explores the world map but doesn't provide live information.

  • Parodied in Sluggy Freelance: Riff hooks a military GPS signal to track his own position so he could navigate to Muffin The Vampire Baker's hometown, where he thinks Sam is (un-)living. All it shows is a (front-on) picture of him with the legend "You Are Here".
    • Later averted in the storyline Aylee, where a plan takes advantage of the gaps in satellite coverage.
  • Parodied (deconstructed?) by Partially Clips, which points out that to get good footage of Iraq, a spy satellite would need to be in low polar orbit. Anything in low polar orbit must pass over every point on earth sooner or later. And when it's passing over New Jersey, there's no legitimate military work to be done so the soldiers and technicians running it probably watch skinnydippers.
  • Schlock Mercenary:
    • Occasionally the Tagon's Toughs' ship acts as an "Overwatch"; the 'person in (ultimate) charge' of pushing any "buttons" is an A.I., making the whole thing automated in effect.
    • The Very Dangerous Array is a series of satellites/observational drones. The first were built into existing missiles. Later models come with observations and exploding all built into one Very Dangerous Package. They usually avoid the "losing sight" and other problems due to there being so many of them. Usually managed by whatever AI's signed on/been built this week.

    Western Animation 
  • Kim Possible screws this one up every time they show satellite footage, although it is sometimes hard to tell if this show is really making a mistake, or just telling a subtle joke. It is, after all, primarily a comedy.
  • The Simpsons:
    • "The Trouble with Trillions" has the government using spy satellites to find the trillion-dollar bill Mr. Burns has stolen. All they can determine is that it isn't on his roof.
    • In "Brother's Little Helper", Bart is convinced that a satellite is spying on him. At the end of the episode, he uses a tank to shoot it down. Mark McGwire admits that the MLB is spying on everyone pretty much all the time. When Bart asks why, McGwire says that he could tell the terrifying truth, or he could hit some dingers instead for the people. The crowd wants to watch him play, and he takes the massive printout and tries to hide it under his hat.
    • In "Stealing First Base", Lisa expresses fear that the Ivy League might find out she once got a less-than-stellar grade. Cut to a satellite with the Harvard insignia turning its camera downwards.
  • Justice League:
    • The Question claims that topically applied fluoride doesn't prevent tooth decay, but instead makes teeth detectable by Their spy satellite.
      Batman: I admit, he's wound a little too tight.
    • In "Task Force X", Lawton reminds Flag that the Justice League Satellite can hear them.

    Real Life 
  • One former Soviet spy said that all Soviet military units had a detailed schedule of things they are supposed to do when a Western spy satellite is passing overhead.
  • Similarly, American units were often similarly informed about Soviet satellite schedules. Sometimes this was due less to spycraft and more due to each side informing the other: Due to nuclear nonproliferation treaties, they had to be able to account for their nuclear bombers to ensure they weren't being covertly deployed, meaning they had to be parked on the ramp at certain times for the satellite flyby.
  • Real life spy satellites are either launched covertly or don't stay covert for very long: orbital mechanics are essentially intricate-but-straightforward math: if you see a satellite, and figure out its trajectory based on speed and direction of travel, you can figure out its orbit and when it will be overhead without issue.
  • We may not think much of it now, but those satellite and aerial pics you can look up on Google Earth? The image quality would've put many actual spy satellites during the Cold War to shame. Most of said images come from Keyhole, Inc., a CIA-funded company whose name is a direct reference to the Keyhole-class spy satellites operated between the 1960s and the 1980s. Actual spying is prevented, though, because sensitive areas are blacked out or edited away in Google Earth images.
  • Numerous Pentagon officials have unofficially claimed that modern spy satellites are so precise that they can see which side a coin on the ground is facing. However even if this is true, its worth noting that a spy satellite would have to know exactly where to look to even find the coin.
  • In 2011, the National Reconnaissance Office unexpectedly offered NASA two identical 2.4-meter space telescopes (each comparable to the Hubble Space Telescope in capability, but considered obsolete by current spy satellite standards). NASA announced the gift in 2012 and has since kept the units in storage while deciding what to do with them – possibilities include use in a wide-field infrared telescope that can directly image extrasolar planets, the observation of Earth's ionosphere and auroras, or sending one to Mars for double duty as a super-high resolution Martian surface camera and an observer of the asteroid belt and outer planets. And in case you were wondering, the terms of the donation specifically state NASA can't point it back at the Earth.

Alternative Title(s): Spy Satellite