Spies in the skies: Does America do the balloon stuff?

18 Feb 2023

Chinese spy balloon passing southwest of Charlotte, NC, on the morning of February 4, 2023 (image: Jeanne, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons)

"Spies in the skies". This is the topic science writer Mike Lucibella1 approached at London's latest Nerd Nite2. Chinese spy balloons have been all over the news recently3. What's going on up there? How about the US space surveillance program?

So: Does America do the balloon stuff? China claims that the U.S. does. America claims that the U.S. doesn't. And that is as far as we know. Lucibella's guess: Probably not. We have all seen how big the balloon issue has become. It seems not to be a great idea to do that. But, at the same time: Who knows? What we do know is this: America has a very big, public, unclassified science balloon program.4

What else is up there looking down on us?

A lot! The US space surveillance program is currently being coordinated by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)5 and the United States Space Force6. The image reconnaissance they are doing is a little bit different than what the Chinese balloon was probably doing: It was probably collecting signal information, while reconnaissance satellites are taking pictures of the ground.

What do those images look like?

Some images have been released over the years, but always degraded to hide how good they are. Because the quality of these images (the detail of them) is one of the most carefully guarded secrets about the program. Until in 2019 Donald Trump tweeted a photo he took of a classified briefing about a rocket launch accident in Iran which included an image taken by one of the spy satellites7.

Secret launches

Rocket launches are hard to keep secret, because they are big, bright and really loud. However, no details of the payload or flight plan for NRO launches are disclosed. These missions are classified. As Lucibella puts it: "We can only scratch the surface of all the different top secret stuff that goes on up in space and near space." There is a lot happening beyond photo reconnaissance: There are other systems, that transmit military communications, listening to other peoples military communications. Gather electromagnetic signals. Create ground images using radar. And probably other stuff we don't know.
Every few months something new is launched into space with little to no information about what's inside the nose code of the rocket. Often, all we have to go on, are these (rather dramatic) mission patches:

NROL-34 (2011)8: "Wisdom Imparts Strength - Strength Defends Wisdom"

NROL-39 (2013)9: "Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach"

NROL-33 (2014)10

NROL-35 (2014)11

NROL-55 (2015)12: "Sustentantes Bellatores De Caelis"

NROL-61 (2016)13

NROL-79 (2017)14: "Victoriam Per Intelligenitiam"


Space and near space is central to international spy efforts since the beginning of the space program. The US spy satellite program is an extremely classified project and only little information is available.

The Nerd Nite London took place on 15.02.2023 at Backyard Comedy Club. Speaker for this topic was Mike Lucibella.

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