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Learn a Few Secrets About Satellites

Find out where you can find secret satellite targets and use satellites.

When the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched on October 4, 1957, the world changed. It was the first artificial satellite launched into space. It wasn’t made to do anything besides pulse out a radio signal, but it sent the space race into overdrive.


It also sent spying into high gear. The Cold War had started ten years earlier and tensions were high; the U.S. and the Soviets were quickly developing aircraft and satellites to spy on one looking through a microscope


But how do you focus a camera on an airplane or satellite when it’s miles, if not hundreds of miles in the sky — especially 50 years ago when all the cameras were still using film? The U.S. military and NASA developed eye charts for spy cameras.


These photo calibration targets, the official name, work the same way as the eye chart you look at when you go to the eye doctor. Instead of letters, they use lines of different sizes to make sure the cameras are correctly set up.


The cool thing is, you can actually see these yourself! There are hundreds of them still around from the Cold War. And new ones are being constructed.


Since almost all of them are on highly secured military bases, you can’t drive up to them. You can use satellites to see them. Yes, you can use the same technology that NASA and the military use to see their calibration targets!


If you open up Google Earth and look around, they are easy to find. The southwest part of Edwards AFB has plenty—some with old aircraft parked next to it. Wright-Patterson AFB is one of the easiest to find; it’s just outside the museum complex on an old, unused runway.


NASA has some of its own, particularly at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. In fact, the whole facility is a calibration target with 45 large discs—even the manhole covers are painted with reflective material to help check aerial sensors.


So go take a fly around! Do a quick search for photo calibration targets and you’ll find a list you can look for on Google Earth! Once you know what you’re looking for, they aren’t too hard to find.

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