The Defense Support Program can provide early warning for ICBM launches by detecting heat and plume signatures.
Advanced U.S. satellites played a key role in the determination by intelligence officials that a surface-to-air missile shot down a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine on Thursday.
The assessment was almost certainly based on a technical branch of spycraft known as measurement and signature intelligence
, or MASINT, analysts said. The method detects, tracks and identifies a variety of electronic signatures, including radar.
The U.S. operates fleets of listening satellites and early warning satellites that could have
identified the location of a missile launch site and its trajectory as it shot up to the 33,000-foot cruising altitude of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.
The Pentagon would have detected the launch because of its heat signature
, said Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a group that lobbies for missile defense spending.
The U.S. Air Force has satellites in high-Earth orbit that use infrared sensors to detect heat from missile and booster plumes
against Earth's background. Called the Defense Support Program, the system provides early warning for intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
The satellites are sensitive enough to sense hot spots in forest fires, according to the Air Force.
In other words, the U.S. could conceivably know what really happened. Conceivably, so could Russia. Realistically, however, the fact that the U.S. "could" or "would" know these details does not in any way imply that their intelligence will be correct (WMDs, anyone?). It will be whatever is politically expedient. Then again, they have to factor in what Russia may know. See Pepe Escobar's recent analysis for more on the subject: MH17: Putin's missile? Nope