Yesterday, I watched an older episode of NCIS (season 1 episode 11: “Eye Spy”) and it happened again.
In it, a CIA apprentice in a room in the CIA building at Langley seems to control a complete KH-12 Keyhole. Something goes wrong while he is “repositioning” the thing from Cuba to Quebec (??), he accidentally images the beach of a Virginia Naval Base, and captures first a woman nude sunbathing, and next a murder being committed.
wrong #1: The CIA does not own and control the KH-12’s. KH-12’s are owned by the NRO, and operated by specialist USAF squadrons (not a CIA apprentice). The CIA does have a photointerpretation unit that looks at selected imagery from KH-12’s. But they do not own or control these satellites. And certainly not from a Langley office room, nor by a single young apprentice. Heck, those satellites cost a few Billion a piece, they have only three of them and they are not easy to replace, not mentioning that thye are vital assetts in Space-based intelligence gathering. Sure, you let a young apprentice toy with that on his own!
wrong #2: : the resolution of KH-12’s is spectacular (in the order of 10 cm), but quite likely not what it is purported to be in this episode. You could in reality just make out a person, but certainly not the full bodily details of a sunbathing woman (in the episode even well enough to print a picture of the face, and use that to identify the woman in question).
wrong #3: “repositioning” it from Cuba to Quebec makes no sense. You don’t “reposition” satellites in a LEO Polar orbit in order to cover a target. In fact, it will pass over Quebec within just minutes of passing over Cuba anyway: that is the fun of a polar orbit! But maybe they meant it in terms of pointing attitude, not in an orbital sense. In which case it is still strange, by the way. Also because Cuba would seem to be more of a prime target than Quebec.
wrong #4: Abby contacts a guy at NASA to find out what satellite it was and access the imagery: it turns out to be a KH-12 Keyhole satellite. First: NASA is not NRO, they don’t deal with these classified military satellites at all. And they certainly won’t meddle with it for fun, i.e. try to hack into the data feed. That would land them in jail (for 20 years to life). Second: the NASA guy says “it’s the same communication system they use of the Milstar’s” (allowing him to hack the frequency and obtain the imagery). But KH-12 Keyholes operate through the SDS system, not the Milstar system. And in both cases, NASA has no connection to those two military systems and will not have the knowledge to hack it. It is also completely unclear, how knowing the satellite involved and the relay satellite used, delivers you the imagery post-facto: presumably that imagery has already been transmitted (in the episode, the CIA apprentice was watching it live!) and now resides in some database somewhere within the NRO. You would have to hack that database, not the satellite.
wrong #5: Abby calls the satellite’s orbit “asynchronous”. Whatever that may be. In fact, KH-12 orbits are sun-synchronous. I have no idea what “asynchronous” is meant to imply, certainly with respect to a KH-12. Bsically, in that particular small piece of dialogue a number of loosely satellite related terms are thrown in the air, but they don’t make sense (the only thing to the point is “Advanced Crystal”, one of the code-names for the KH-12 Keyhole constellation).
wrong #6: they later use another “hacked” satellite, which is again somehow accesible to NASA (not in reality! NASA and NRO are separate worlds) to follow a car over an extended trip, with IR imagery in quite spectacular detail. Such detail would only be possible from LEO (Low Earth Orbit), , if at all, but in that case, they could never had this extended coverage as the satellite too quickly would be out of reach again. Extended coverage like this would be possible from a HEO (Highly Elliptical Orbit) or GEO (geostationary orbit) only but that would never yield this level of resolution.
wrong #7: The murderes is apprehended at the end of the car trip, and this capture of the culprit is entirely based on the fact that she was followed using the satellite imagery. In reality, any court case based on this would never result in a conviction. US law prohibits the use of spy satellites on US citizens and any such use of satellite technology would be inadmissable in court.
Bottom line: these script-writers (Frank Cardea, Dana Coen and George Schenck for this episode) should have done their homework more properly.