Most of the military photos and images are taken from satellites, and the military space program is mostly unseen but very significant aspect. Almost a dozen countries are involved in some or the other kind of space program, but all of them are dwarfed by the space program of the United States. There are five major areas of military space operations – surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, signals intelligence, meteorology, and navigation. The United States and Russia are the only countries which operate spacecraft in all these five areas. Many other countries have been using communications satellites for military uses. Then in the 1990s, many countries along with the United States and Russia started developing reconnaissance satellites.
Let us look at these five areas in detail:
Surveillance and Reconnaissance
This involves making use of satellites to observe the Earth for various purposes. Satellites dedicated to this purpose take photographs of the targets on the earth and communicate them to receiving stations in almost real time. However, these satellite cameras are unable to take continuous images like a television camera. Instead, they take photographs of the target every few seconds, and these photos are black and white. Because these satellites are continuously moving and in low orbits, they can take photographs of any target for almost a minute before moving out of range of the target. The best of these satellites can photograph as small as a softball, but they cannot read license plates.
These satellites can operate in extremely high geosynchronous orbits or low earth orbits. They appear to remain stable in one spot in the sky, and these satellites listen to communications from walkie-talkies, mobile phones, radios, microwave transmissions, and radars. This information, in turn, is relayed to the ground and here it is processed for different purposes. However, these satellites are not able to collect every conversation around the globe.
These satellites operate in different orbits for different purposes. Most commonly the communication satellites operate in geosynchronous orbits. Some of these satellites like the UHF of the US Navy are used to communicate with ships at sea. There are others like the massive Milstar satellite of the air force which communicate with troops on the ground and submarines which are equipped with small antennas. Many other communications satellites are used to transmit reconnaissance pictures to ground stations or troops in the field.
Navigation and meteorology
Navigation satellites are also important for military forces. For centuries, sailors used the stars for navigation, but starting in the early 1960s, the United States Navy used a satellite system to help ships navigate in the sea. This was especially important for submarines carrying ballistic missiles that kept submerged for most of their patrols and could only sometimes raise an antenna above the water to find out their position.
All said and done military photos and imagery depends on a lot on satellite programs of different countries and as mentioned above the ones of the United States and Russia are superior to those of the other countries around the world. These photos often need to use good flashlights at night and imagery are used for different purposes, and the kind of satellites used for these different purposes are also different.