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How satellites helped get Osama

Google / DigitalGlobe / GeoEye

This Google Earth image shows Osama bin Laden's triangular compound toward the left side of the frame.

The climax of the Osama drama took place on the ground in Pakistan, but the gutsy military operation would have been impossible to pull off without a web of orbiting satellites.

The proof of that emerged today in accounts of the plan to get Osama bin Laden: Once the CIA and the U.S. military focused in on bin Laden's potential hideout in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, views from above could be turned into a detailed map of the premises, most likely with the help of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The map was so detailed that the operation's planners could build a mockup of the compound for rehearsals.


"The outer features of the compound were studied intensively," John Brennan, the White House's deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, told journalists today.

The Pentagon can draw upon a constellation of military satellites for imagery in a variety of wavelengths, but it also picks up pictures from commercial satellite companies such as GeoEye and DigitalGlobe — the same companies that provide mapping data for websites such as Google Earth. A series of satellite pictures can be used to trace the history of the building site from an empty lot in 2001, to a newly built mansion in 2005, to an even more built-out neighborhood this January. Here's that latest image from DigitalGlobe:

DigitalGlobe via Space.com

An image from DigitalGlobe highlights Osama bin Laden's compound as it appeared on Jan. 15.

Tracking down the precise location of bin Laden's base on satellite imagery occupied the attention of geo-geeks for hours, until the CIA provided the solution to the puzzle. Postings on Ogle Earth and the Google Earth blog trace every step of the hunt. This diagram from the CIA helps you identify the compound on the images above:

CIA

A diagram from the CIA shows the layout of Osama bin Laden's compound in detail.

Once the decision was made to go ahead with the raid, another set of satellites came into play: A space-based military satellite system that provides a secure communication channel between the warfighters in the field and the experts directing the operation from far off. Even President Barack Obama could monitor the action in real time from the White House Situation Room, just as CIA Director Leon Panetta could from the spy agency's headquarters.

Pete Souza / White House

President Barack Obama and other top U.S. government officials receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room on Sunday.

The main satellite constellations involved here are the Defense Satellite Communications System, or DSCS-III and the Milstar system. Milstar is of more recent vintage and has more capability for secure communications, but it doesn't offer as much signal bandwidth as DSCS-III. The satellite system links up with communication terminals that are installed at bases on the ground, place on ships stationed offshore, or even carried around by the helicopter raiders. The Navy SEALs who took on the "get Osama" mission typically wear helmet-cams that can send a stream of encrypted video halfway around the world.

These high-tech surveillance and communication tools ultimately provided the U.S. military with a high-tech edge over Osama bin Laden and his supporters, who had to go low-tech to avoid detection. And ironically, it was that very low-techiness that tipped off the CIA: The fact that a million-dollar mansion had no phone lines or Internet links led analysts to suspect that they had the right target in their sights.

More on technology and bin Laden's death:

Correction for 7:25 p.m. ET: After the initial posting of this item, I added in the factoid about helmet-cams, but in my haste I typed "get Obama" rather than "get Osama" ... which is too bad, because I had double-checked the original item to try to avoid just that sort of mistake. Sorry about the error, and thanks to all those who pointed it out in the comment section below. To make it up to the Navy SEALs, here's a video from NBC News' George Lewis.


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