By Nicholas West
As if merely working on ways to create tiny satellites that can see every square inch of the the planet isn’t creepy enough, DARPA is funding a project that literally evokes a planetary web of surveillance: SPIDER.
Amid daily revelations of how our digital communications devices are being used against us by the world’s leading intelligence agencies, it is often overlooked at how quickly physical surveillance capabilities are accelerating.
In June I wrote an article entitled, “Low-Cost Micro Satellites are Spawning a Global Surveillance Arms Race” where I detailed the little-known connection between commercial imagery vendor DigitalGlobe and the also little-known U.S. agency GEOINT, as well as other smaller players contributing to the growing arms race of space-based surveillance. The result would be satellites “the mass of a pair of toasters,” that could collect imagery and automate searches as needed.
As Major Mike Little from the U.S. Southern Command concisely stated:
Our competitors will learn to use this exploding geo-enabled capability to learn a lot of things. If we don’t use this as well as them and use our exquisite assets to be a differentiator and stay ahead, we’re going to get behind.
Regardless of this tacit admission that the U.S. is paving the way toward a global Panopticon, once initiated it becomes the perfect problem-reaction-solution paradigm within which the military industrial complex thrives.
Now just a few months later, Defense One is reporting that “Future Spy Satellites Just Got Exponentially Smaller.”
Future spy satellites may unfold like origami birds, collecting image data along long, flat sensor arrays that weigh almost nothing. By replacing the bulky telescopic lenses that make today’s spy sats among the biggest and most expensive things in space, light-sensitive microchips promise far cheaper access to orbital imagery.
Last month, Lockheed Martin released the first images from its experimental Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance, or SPIDER, program. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, SPIDER is basically a telescope on a microchip. But it collects light data very differently from a conventional telescope.
The technical details are rather dense, but researchers are essentially applying different physics for how a lens “sees” information. By measuring wavelength rather than the intensity of light, this type of satellite would be less power-intensive and more compatible with computer algorithms and chipsets, thus enabling a far smaller device.
“You’re measuring a more fundamental characteristic of the light that’s carrying the information that you want when you measure amplitude and phase. That gives you the ability to manipulate that information in algorithms and software that you don’t have if you only measure intensity somewhere,” said Alan Duncan, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin.
In an era of heightened suspicion within geopolitics about the physical maneuverings and developments of whatever nations the U.S. deems to be “rogue,” the players within the space-surveillance arms race are more than eager to present solutions. If the rest of us get caught in the expanding web … well, it’s always just the cost of doing business.