Can spy satellites read the headlines of a newspaper on a park bench?

Dear Cecil:

I recently heard that spy satellites can read the headlines off the newspaper of a person sitting on a park bench. How powerful are these satellites? Can they see through walls?

Cecil replies:

Give me a break. Though the Pentagon isn’t exactly bubbling over with details about things like this, we are fortunate enough to have in this country that great institution known as a free press, which can ferret out stuff that would take the KGB years. Defense reporter Jay Peterzell, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, of all places, says that the resolution of both U.S. and Soviet spy satellites is six inches and perhaps even less. That means if you have two objects six inches square and they’re placed at least six inches apart, they’ll show up as two distinct items in the photos, rather than one big blur. That’s not bad; the resolution of commercial satellites ranges from 10 to 30 meters. But it still pretty much rules out reading the headlines in the newspaper, unless of course you’re talking about something on the order of the New York Post, whose headlines you can read from Mars (which seems only fitting). For anything else in the way of reading material, the Russkies have to go out and plunk down a quarter like everybody else.

Send questions to Cecil via

Comment on this Column