Chris Horn: Satellites allow everyone to be a spy

UCD and Queen’s have submitted cubesat ideas to the European Space Agency

The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off Cape Canaveral in December 2015 – it carried 11 satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based company. Photograph: Reuters

In October, we will celebrate 60 years of space technology. On October 4th 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik-1.

The reaction to Sputnik in the US was widespread consternation and fear. The US public had been led to believe its technology was superior to anything elsewhere on the planet. Suddenly wild rumours appeared in the US media that the Soviets had the capability to eavesdrop on the planet; that they could use X-ray cameras to see you naked in your bedroom and, most worrying of all, could drop a nuclear weapon from space, anywhere, at very short notice.

The US administration, led by president Dwight D Eisenhower, tried to calm the public, press and political opponents. Behind the scenes the administration was, however, extremely concerned the Soviets had now demonstrated a powerful intercontinental ballistic missile capability. The mass of Sputnik-1, at 83kg, was more than eight-times that of the planned first US satellite. In addition, the Soviet R-7 heavy launch rocket had a thrust of 4.4M kN, far surpassing the measly 670 kN of the US Vanguard launch system.

The Soviets continued to rapidly advance, with the 500kg Sputnik-2 launched in 1957 which carried Laika, the first space dog, and then the following year the 1,300kg Sputnik-3 with a scientific payload. In April 1961, the Soviet Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space.



The first military application of satellites was reconnaissance. The first photograph taken from space was in 1946, using a camera strapped onto a captured German V-2 rocket. The US launched its first spy satellite in June 1959, under the Corona programme. The images were not transmitted back to the ground, but rather the film canister from the camera system was recovered after re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviets started their rival Zenit spy satellite programme in 1961 and more than 500 Zenit satellites were launched during a 33-year period, making the Zenit the most numerous spacecraft-type to date.

Despite some initial reservations from the military, the first remote sensing satellite Landsat-1 for civilian use was launched by Nasa in 1972. The space agency actively promoted its data and images for terrestrial research, although some countries were nervous that overflights would lead to exploitation of their natural resources by US companies.

Then 15 years ago, Google Earth was released. It brought satellite images routinely to the public, and enabled terrestrial researchers and geography students worldwide to see at first hand the changing nature of the planet. One of my own daily pleasures is the free "Earth View" extension for Google's Chrome internet browser on my laptop, which brings gorgeous images of the planet each time I open a new browser tab.

As result of Google Earth, the public can now spy on the military. For example, the latest generation American aircraft carrier is the Gerald R Ford, which can be seen under construction in Newport in the US at The next generation British carrier Prince of Wales is being built in Rosyth in Scotland, see China's second aircraft carrier Shandong can be seen nearing completion in a dry dock at Dalian at

Commercial potential

Last February, Google sold its in-house satellite business to Planet Inc, a privately held start-up in San Francisco. Google is now licensing back space images from Planet for use by Google Earth. Planet is already flying 60 orbiting medium-resolution cameras, each the size of a shoebox. The acquisition from Google will add a further seven high-resolution camera satellites.

Also in February, Planet had the largest ever single launch of a fleet of satellites, a further 88 miniatures sent into space. Using its constellation of satellites, Planet soon will offer daily images of any part of the planet. The ability to monitor day-by-day changes of anywhere on Earth has both commercial and research value for naturally-occurring events, man-made constructions and climate change.

The EU has sponsored an international academic collaboration of 50 “cubesat” miniature satellites, which will be launched later this month. Sadly, there is no Irish university involved. The QB50 project will research the lower thermosphere (about 200-380km altitude) which is the least explored level of the atmosphere, due to the drag forces involved and the cost of larger satellites.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has had a "Fly Your Satellite" initiative to encourage the development of cubesats built by university student teams. The first seven were launched in 2012 on the inaugural flight of the Arianespace Vega rocket. University College Dublin and Queen's University Belfast, together with a number of Irish companies, have just submitted a proposal under the current call to ESA for participation in the next batch of cubesats, to be launched from the International Space Station. Shortlisted teams will be invited to convene in the Netherlands in May. Let us hope the Irish are among them.