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From late 2009 to late 2010, as attention on East Asia was consumed by high tensions on the Korean Peninsula and at the edges of the East China Sea, China’s powerful military space establishment quietly deployed a record number of spy satellites into lower earth orbit.

These included the launching of seven classified Yaogan series satellites for collecting military intelligence. Two of these satellites, the Yaogan 7 and the Yaogan 11, are believed to be electro-optical (EO) imaging satellites, capable of electronically capturing high resolution digital images of the earth and transmitting them in near real-time to ground stations via China’s Tianlian satellite data relay network. These satellites evolved from the older generation photo reconnaissance satellites that periodically returned film canisters to earth for processing. While EO satellites greatly improved monitoring capabilities, they are also limited by their reliance on the visible and near infrared spectrum, which means that their transmissions can be considerably reduced – sometimes altogether – by cloud cover, weather events such as sand storms, and the dark of night.

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Category: Science