Space and Security: Earth Observation Between the Priorities of Civilian and Military Use

  • Norbert FrischaufEmail author
Conference paper


September 11, 2001 marks the date when the power of Earth imagery became obvious to the general public for the first time. Due to the terror attacks on the World Trade Centers and other sites, all airplanes were banned from the US skies for several days. Consequently it was up to Earth Observation satellites like IKONOS and others to provide exclusive images of “Ground Zero”. These images made but one thing clear to everyone: space is not only a place for science and exploration, but enables also an important security dimension. To the space expert this was clear right from the beginning, when science and reconnaissance were the main drivers behind the first missions into space. At the beginning, spy satellites were already an important tool to observe the enemy, but when the USSR shot down F. Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960, spy satellites became the primary utility of choice. Consequently spy satellite activities increased, cumulating into several generations of reconnaissance satellites, one more performant than the other. The latest generation of optical imaging satellites features resolutions better than 10 cm and is complemented by radar based systems. Spy satellites tracked military movements, were instrumental in assessing the “bomber gap” and provided insights into the planning of the cold war adversaries. In the end, one may even argue that it was due to the spy satellites that the cold war remained cold and never turned into a hot war. Triggered by the success of spy satellites, the security dimension of space increased over time. Today, space is used for navigation, space reconnaissance (esp. ICBMs), control of own ICBMs and long range guided missiles, communication purposes, early warning, and more. Dual-use is the buzzword of the hour, exemplified by the fact that the military reconnaissance function has inherited a civilian brother dubbed Earth Observation, which provides for urban planning, environmental monitoring and protection, tracking applications, etc.—Europe’s Copernicus programme is a showcase for the dual-use character of Earth Observation. As applications and services in the space and security domain have increased, so have the number of players. Today, Earth Observation is one of the most vibrant application domains in space—serving both civilian and military users. This paper addresses the various priorities, concepts and systems that were and maintain instrumental for the success of Earth Observation and will continue to shape its future.



The author would like to acknowledge Prof. René Laufer, Baylor University, for his insights and comments, which became very valuable contributions to this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CERNGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Austrian Space Forum (OEWF)ViennaAustria

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