Categories: Guide to Space

Am I Being Watched From Space?

Look up, way up. It’s entirely possible that you’re looking right at a satellite, which is watching you right back. What kind of Earth Observation technology is possible?

Feel like somebody’s watching you? Well buckle up Rockwell, because somebody totally is. From space, definitely. And by the spiders. Oh, how the spiders love to watch. Right now, there are hundreds of satellites directing their creepy magic eyes and space nostrils towards the Earth.

Watching every… move… you make? Well, not your every move. Probably not any of your moves. At least not enough to warrant bringing in Thriller Pepsi-hair-on-fire Michael Jackson for backing vocals.

There’s a flock of Earth Observation satellites orbiting the planet right now. NASA alone has more than a dozen satellites in its imaginatively titled Earth Observing System program. Some image the land while others measure the atmosphere, oceans, ice, even the planet’s gravity and magnetosphere.

There’s also Landsat satellites. The first launched in 1972 to begin photographing Earth for SCIENCE. Many of the most famous images of Earth were taken by this program, and the missions are still going.

Landsat 8 launched in 2013, and preliminary plans are being made for Landsat 9. Landsat 8 images the entire planet every 16 days. They can’t see what you put in your coffee, at a 15-meter resolution.

NASA isn’t watching you right now, but they are pouring over photos from the last 16 days. Really, they’re dwelling on you from the past. They keep meaning to send you flowers and tell you you’re really pretty, but first they’ve got to get up the courage to dig through your garbage and spend a whole day waiting in their car outside your favorite restaurant.

Want to see what they’re tracking exactly and what secrets they’ve uncovered? Go to this url here – and you can browse the image archives in almost real time from the Landsat satellites. You can see all kinds of government and personal secrets like the seasons changes from Spring to Summer, or possibly a time that lake froze over.

You’re probably wondering about the higher resolution images, like the ones you’ve been looking at on Google Maps. Most likely you’ve been duped. The crazy high resolution images you see of cities are actually photographs taken from airplanes flying a few hundred meters up.

Satellite view of the White House. Image credit: Google Maps

If you can see an airplane or black helicopters flying around you suspiciously, you might be under surveillance. Otherwise, you’re probably safe.

Ah, who am I kidding. We’ve all watched John Oliver. The least of our concerns is cameras. Nobody should be even thinking about a tiny little fly robot that attaches itself to your nosehairs.

What we were talking about? Oh right! How about images from space? The best commercially available satellite images have a resolution of 41 cm. That’s about… this big.

Your tinfoil hat, seen from above only takes up a single pixel. Rest comfortably, as this isn’t a technological problem, it’s actually a legal issue. That’s the highest resolution satellites were allowed to provide.

That’s right, I said “were”. A revision to the law allows the next generation of satellites, such as the recently launched Worldview-3 satellite, to get down to 31 cm – as small as 25 will be permitted.

As the press officer of Digital Globe noted, they’ll be able to tell if your vehicle is a car, truck or SUV. That’s all fine and dandy, but will they call me when I can’t remember where I parked?

Of course, we have no idea what resolution the most powerful satellites are, because they’re super double secret unimaginably classified. We don’t know how many there are, and what they’re capable of, but they’re launched aboard some of the most powerful rockets available in the US, like the Atlas 4.

A defense satellite quietly going about its business in low Earth (credit: US Air Force)

What do they look like? Let’s go with the Hubble Space Telescope, pointing down. What kind of resolution do they have? Nobody knows. You can google “Hubble pointed at earth” and read up on all the messy complications with resolution and speed.

The rumor mill seems to think that it’s around 15 cm, significantly better than the commercially available options. Not enough count sugar spoonfuls, but it could target you in your tinfoil hat with ordinance.

Are you being watched from space? Probably. There are several satellites overhead right now, and other satellites capturing low resolution images of your region every few days.

The most powerful satellites are classified military reconnaissance spacecraft, and we have no idea what they’re capable of.

Holy Snowden, that does sound creepy in realm of “stop reading snapchats over my shoulder, heavy breather.”

What configuration of tinfoil hat do you like best to protect your thoughts from orbital mind control lasers?

Fraser Cain

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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