Spy satellites fighting crime from space

(CNN) — Months after the murder of Rania Alayed, the search for her body had ground to a halt. Although her husband — who had admitted to her killing — indicated the approximate location where he buried the body off a highway near Manchester, northern England, police were still left with miles of open field to dig through.

Frustrated with the high cost and lack of progress, investigators turned to an experimental form of satellite imaging.

“We had been using aerial photography, and the opportunity came up to look at a larger expanse,” said detective superintendent Peter Marsh, of Greater Manchester Police. “It allowed us to identify anomalies on the ground, which we could search straight away.”

The satellite was sensitive enough to pick up a rabbit hole under bushes, and the disturbance caused by shotgun shells used in clay pigeon shooting. By systematically eliminating possible sites of the grave, police say their eye in the sky has saved them months of fruitless work. The search for Alayed’s body is ongoing, but Marsh believes a significant breakthrough has been made.

“We see this technology as taking us into the next generation of crime investigation. For me it’s a ‘wow factor’ to have assistance from a satellite in space rather than using a spade on the ground. This is moving forward.”

Satellites have been used in criminal investigations before. The Australian authorities have used them for over a decade in cases of illegal logging, for example. But technology advances are now enabling far more accurate and reliable imagery that could revolutionize 21st-century policing, transforming law enforcement capacity through highly detailed surveillance.

“Even five years ago the pixel resolution was one meter at best, with most sensors in the two to five-meter range,” says Dr. Richard Hilton, senior Earth observation specialist at Satellite Applications Catapult, the British company that supplied their technology to the Alayed case. “This year we have 30cm resolution, which dramatically changes the potential for detecting things, or monitoring a site of interest.”

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