An extra-high resolution sensor built for the U.S. Naval Observatory is now part of a Chinese mission to put an observatory in Antarctica. The use of the U.S. technology, however, was uncertain.
According to a South China Morning Post article (subscription required), the U.S. government considered whether the sensor counted as a civilian-military “dual use” technology, which would make its export to China problematic.
Digital cameras in civilian use typically range up to 12 megapixels, but the CCD shipped to China by California-based Semiconductor Technology Associates (STA) has a capacity of 100 megapixels, suitable for producing extra-high-definition photos of the sky. However, when not gazing at distant galaxies, a sensitive telescope equipped with STA’s imager could be used to track, identify and lock onto enemy countries’ satellites orbiting the earth.
The device is so sensitive that the NOAC scientists thought the administration of US President Barack Obama might declare the imager to be dual-use technology, meaning it could have both civilian and military applications, and would therefore be refused an export licence to China.
One reason the US administration may have approved the STA 1600’s export to China is that the device captures only visible light and is blind to infrared radiation, [STA President Richard Bredthauer] said.
An infrared sensitive CCD can be used on spy satellites that see in the dark and can distinguish civilian installations from military ones. Bredthauer declined to comment on whether a CCD that was sensitive only to visible light could also be used for military purposes. [emphasis added]
The export to China of imaging technology used for surveillance and hardware used for internet filtering is controversial, as some argue that U.S. firms should be barred from profiting from surveillance in authoritarian countries.