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I am the eye in the skyI can read your mind
Looking at you
—The Alan Parsons Project, "Eye in the Sky"
Much loved things of the Spy Drama and one that they most frequently mess up on, the omnipresent "eye-in-the-sky" is always shown to be a whole lot more useful than it truly is.
Satellite views are usually shown to be immune to clouds, 100 percent reliable, always available, and seem to be right over the target just when they are needed. The biggest error, however, is showing a live fixed video feed from orbit.
Consider the fact that most spy satellites orbit around 200 miles or so above the ground. This means that it has to travel at just below five miles per second to stay in orbit. The amount of live feed you can get, therefore, is next to zero and you'll have to have the satellite rotating to do it. Slanting will occur very rapidly. If you want to hold a satellite over a place for any major length of time, you need to put it into geostationary orbit (22,240 miles over the equator) or an elliptical 'Molniya-style' orbit. Any images will be uselessly slanted, unless you happen to want good shots of Ecuador and have a really powerful zoom lens. Essentially, this is one of the many sub-tropes of Space Does Not Work That Way.
Satellites also often display an absurd level of detail. The resolution of an optical system is primarily based on its aperture (i.e. diameter). For that reason, spy satellites have pretty big teleskopes in the meter-plus-range, meaning their images have pixel resolution in the 1-cm-range on the ground (details are, of course, classified). This would be enough only for a pretty low image quality. The issue here is inherent in the physics of light, and not going to be averted by cool classified technology (existent or not).
Data processing also consumes a certain amount of time. Nobody should be, on the fly, searching footage of a city for a specific license plate, for example.
If the live satellite feed looks just like recycled footage from earlier in the episode, then it's a Magical Security Cam.
It should also be pointed out that according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' 2007 Military Balance, the US only has three visual satellites in orbit.
When done in the modern context with UAVs, it is far more justifiable.
- Near in Death Note offers to use one of these to keep an eye on a hostage crisis, but it's forgivable as it makes absolutely no impact on the plot.
- Used very straight in the Read or Die OVA. A spy satellite identifies a villain talking to The Mole in a crowded Indian village. Then after a few seconds of footage, the villain looks up, sees the satellite, and the feed cuts off. (We briefly see that he knocked it out of orbit with his extensible staff.)
- In Aeon Entelechy Evangelion the military has a few satellites that were not shot down by the Migou. Unfortunately for them, the effectiveness of these satellites is low because of the Migou orbital superiority.
- Neon Exodus Evangelion has, in the final chapter, all the spy satellites controlled by X-COM, since they sent up Raiden interceptors to destroy any satellites SEELE had. They're pretty much only used for searching for the villain's base.
- Lampshaded in Enemy of the State. When Dean meets Brill on a rooftop, The Government agents assigned to track Dean try to determine Brill's identity, but can only see the top of his head. When one agent asks why they can't just move the camera, the technician replies that the satellite is at least 200 miles in the air, so the only angle it can look at is straight down.
- Averted in Behind Enemy Lines. When the Admiral uses a spy satellite to try and find his lost pilot, he is only able to see the area for a few short minutes before the satellite moves out of position.
- Averted in a zig zag fashion in Patriot Games. When CIA intelligence analysts use a spy satellite to figure out which of several camps belongs to a rogue faction of the IRA, they are forced to use a still picture and to make some rather ambitious inferences to determine that the camp belongs to the bad guys - the camera can't show them faces. On the other hand, when an DGSE platoon raids the camp at night, the infrared spy satellite watching the action appears to give a perfect 'camera in the sky' view of the action. On the other hand, the raiders complete their mission in a matter of a few minutes.
- The novel and the movie actually focus on the limitations of the spy satellites, noting that the terrorists know when they will fly overhead and thus they hide any suspicious activity. They are only able to get those ambiguous satellite photos by re-routing the satellites to fly over at a new time.
- And the raid on the terrorist camp is deliberately timed to take place when a satellite is overhead, so that the guys back at the CIA can watch it, in real time.
- The orbital particle beam cannon in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory had a video lens that was powerful enough to focus on the breasts of a topless sunbather in Los Angeles in crystal-clear real time.
- That's probably why the camera was added anyway.
- Men in Black plays it straight when K is watching his lost love, although it does appear to turn into a freeze-frame as she looks upward.
- Of course, like everything else the Men in Black use, from their guns to their cars, the satellites in question are undoubtedly made with advanced alien technology, so it's sort of justified.
- Soundwave in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen takes this to the natural extreme, using a satellite as his alt mode. He can even hijack other spy satellites through a process that looks suspiciously like tentacle rape.
- Used in Goldeneye: After detonation of the first GoldenEye satellite above Severnaya fried all satellites in the area, the British secret service brings in another satellite to observe the wreckage... And Bond notices something moving.
- Several of Philip José Farmer's novels include spy satellites. In the Dayworld series they are a weapon of a future
police statesharing caring one-world government. Interestingly, even though the articles were written in the 70's/ early 80's Farmer has the satellites hooked up to gait-analysing computers. It adds to the paranoid atmosphere: once the characters become fugitives they have to wear widebrim hats and spend every moment on the street walking in a deliberately different pattern.
- As mentioned in the film section above, Spy Satellites played a central role in the plot of Patriot Games, with a portion of the plot centering around the CIA personnel trying to outwit the Genre Savvy North Irish extremists who made a point of avoiding being outside when the American satellites passed over head.
- At one point, a satellite gets a photo of a woman in a low-cut dress, as viewed from above. One of the analysts estimates that she had to be a C-Cup or bigger, because the limited resolution of the satellites meant that they wouldn't be able to see her cleavage if she were any smaller.
- Spy satellites show up in other Ryanverse stories, but usually in a realistic fashion: with still photos, known trajectories, and otherwise limited ability. When spy satellites are not appropriate (for example, in Without Remorse, part of which involves the Vietnam War), drones and UA Vs are used. The Bear and The Dragon actually focuses on how Dark Star UA Vs (essentially stealthy Predator drones) dramatically shift the balance of power in war, allowing the undertrained, undermanned, very poorly equipped Russian army to defeat the otherwise overwhelmingly superior Chinese invaders.
- Twenty Four has had this one several times. In its first use George Mason asked for thirty-second intervals. The footage shown were blatantly more like a picture every five seconds.
- Alias constantly relies on this to feed intel to its super-agents as they work in the field. Many of the show's plot points hinge on this trope.
- Used often in the sixth season of Power Rangers, though all PR seasons have used it to some extent whenever the Rangers are watching a monster attacking the City of Adventure. Unless it's specifically a tech-based season though, this is generally Magitek instead of full out Spy Satellites.
- NCIS in "Eye Spy".
- Jericho's track record with satellites is... schizophrenic. On the one hand, you get reasonable-looking still photos from satellites. On the other, you get Hawkins' satellite feeds... which appear to be filmed right at ground level.
- Fringe is guilty of this one to a large degree. Not only did they pull up spy sat footage of an area, but it was from hours ago when there would have been no reason for a spy sat to even be looking there. The writers apparently want the viewer to believe that the entire surface of the Earth is not only under constant surveillance but also being archived.
- Oh...yes...of course...that only happens on that TV show... yes...that's all we suspect.
- It's a show about a secret government group that researches weirdness that violates the laws of physics. Absolute surveillance is hardly impossible.
- Technology clearly is much more advanced. No one bats an eye when one recurring character is outfitted with a fully functional cyborg arm.
- Generally averted in The Unit, which uses still photos.
- In an episode of Thunder in Paradise, one of the heroes looks for a spy satellite nearby to hack into from his Cool Boat, finds one, and acts as a Mission Control for his partner.
- "The Electric Eye" by Judas Priest.
- While you can't actually buy one in the game, GURPS: High-Tech discusses the flaws of the "Eye In The Sky". Along with limits of the technology itself, an untrained character can't even determine what the readouts mean.
- Used with irony in one of the Splinter Cell. During one of the idle conversations of a guard, he mentions nobody uses spies or bugs anymore, they use satellites. Guards aren't exactly geniuses in the game (though they aren't crazy either), and he was definitely wrong about nobody using spies. Obviously, as you are one.
- Advanced Strategic Command has unarmed satellites. It's one of the most useful non-combat units, given importance of view fields and that very few units in standard rulesets can attack (or even see) anything on orbit. Also, they discover mineral resources, which otherwise is rather slow, as few other units do it, and in much shorter range at that.
- Parodied in Sluggy Freelance: Riff hooks a military GPS signal to track his own position so he could navigate to Muffin The Vampire Baker's hometown, where he thinks Sam is (un-)living. All it shows is a (front-on) picture of him with the legend "You Are Here".
- Later averted in the storyline Aylee, where a plan takes advantage of the gaps in satellite coverage.
- Parodied (deconstructed?) by Partially Clips, which points out that to get good footage of Iraq, a spy satellite would need to be in low polar orbit. Anything in low polar orbit must pass over every point on earth sooner or later. And when it's passing over New Jersey, there's no legitimate military work to be done so the soldiers and technicians running it probably watch skinnydippers.
- Kim Possible screws this one up every time they show satellite footage, although it is sometimes hard to tell if this show is really making a mistake, or just telling a subtle joke. It is, after all, primarily a comedy.
- One episode of The Simpsons had the government using spy satellites to find the trillion-dollar bill Mr. Burns had stolen. All they could determine was that it wasn't on his roof.
- In "Brother's Little Helper" Bart is convinced that a satellite is spying on him. At the end of the episode he uses a tank to shoot it down. Mark McGwire admits that the MLB is spying on everyone, pretty much all the time. When Bart asks why, McGwire says that he could tell the terrifying truth or he could hit some dingers instead for the people. The crowd wants to watch him play, and he takes the massive printout and tries to hide it under his hat.
- In Justice League Unlimited, The Question claims that topically applied flourite doesn't prevent tooth decay, but instead makes teeth detectable by Their spy satellite.
- One former Soviet spy said that all Soviet military units had a detail schedule of things they are supposed to do when a Western spy satellite is passing overhead.
- What is really notable is their entire military had a protocol for that. The US military seems to limit that to its testing and development installations; not so much emphasis is put on hiding formations of soldiers doing PT.
- There is a way of increasing satellite resolution to near-fictional levels that has been suggested as at least having been experimented with: if you put two satellites in the same orbit, one just slightly trailing the other, and aim them at the same target, you can combine the images to get greater resolution by creating the equivalent of a virtual lens that is much bigger than the individual lens on an individual satellite.
- Actually that would not work. This technique ("interferometry") does not result in pictures, it (currently) works only for wavelengths up to infrared at most, and it would require the sats to be positioned with sub-wavelength precision - not possible in the drag of the upper atmosphere, even at 200 miles.
- A similar concept is used in Schlock Mercenary, with the VDA (Very Dangerous Array) only instead of two satellites they use a large number of torpedoes.
- This is known as distributed optics, and actually has a much more useful application in the creation of enormous "virtual telescopes". A telescope's resolving power is limited by the size of its primary mirror (if using a reflecting telescope), and those in orbit can obviously be larger than those on the ground - however, past a certain point, it's impossible to lift them into orbit safely. The idea is to use many smaller mirrors spread out over a large area, which act as small parts of a larger mirror. It takes a lot longer to gather the light needed for an exposure, but it is at a MUCH higher resolution. With a large enough array, we could see extra-solar planets with as much detail as we can see Earth.
- The creatively named Very Large Array has already applied the technology to radio telescopes.
- We may not think much of it now, but those satellite and aerial pics you can look up on Google Earth? The image quality would've put many actual spy satellites during the Cold War to shame. Most of said images come from Keyhole, Inc., a CIA-funded company whose name is a direct reference to the Corona spy satellites, which were all designated with the name "Key Hole" followed by a number. Actual spying is prevented, though, because sensitive areas are blacked out or edited away in Google Earth images.