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Declassified US Spy Satellites Reveal Rare Look at Secret Cold War Space Program

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Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.

The vintage National Reconnaissance Office satellites were displayed to the public Saturday in a one-day-only exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va. The three spacecraft were the centerpiece of the NRO’s invitation-only, 50th Anniversary Gala celebration held at the center last evening.

Saturday’s spysat unveiling was attended by a number of jubilant NRO veterans who developed and refined the classified spacecraft and its components for decades in secret, finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did ‘at the office’ for so many years. Both of the newly declassified satellite systems, GAMBIT and HEXAGON, followed the U.S. military’s frontrunner spy satellite system CORONA, which was declassified in 1995.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986. The bus-size satellites weighed 30,000 pounds and were 60 feet long.

Big spy satellites revealed

The KH-9 HEXAGON, often referred to by its popular nickname “Big Bird,” lived up to its legendary expectations. As large as a school bus, the KH-9 HEXAGON carried 60 miles of high resolution photographic film for space surveillance missions.

Military space historian Dwayne A. Day was exuberant after his first look at the KH-9 HEXAGON.

“This was some bad-ass technology,” Day told SPACE.com. “The Russians didn’t have anything like it.”

Day, co-editor of “Eye in the Sky: The Story of the CoronaSpy Satellites,” noted that “it took the Soviets on average five to 10 years to catch up during the Cold War, and in many cases they never really matched American capabilities.”

Phil Pressel, designer of the HEXAGON’s panoramic ‘optical bar’ imaging cameras, agreed with Day’s assessment.

“This is still the most complicated system we’ve ever put into orbit …Period.”

The HEXAGON’s twin optical bar panoramic mirror cameras rotated as the swept back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as “mowing the lawn.”

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon's panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft's once highly-classified features, which he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO's Sept. 17, 2011 declassification.of

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon’s panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft’s once highly-classified features, a life’s work that he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO’s Sept. 17, 2011 declassification of the massive spy satellite.

Each 6-inch wide frame of HEXAGON film capturing a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the NRO. [10 Ways the Government Watches You]

According to documents released by the NRO, each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that could send its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister’s re-entry.

In a fascinating footnote, the film bucket from the first KH-9 HEXAGON sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in spring 1972 after Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the bucket’s parachute.

The film inside the protective bucket reported contained high resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos. In a daredevil feat of clandestine ingenuity, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicle Trieste II succeeded in grasping the bucket from a depth of 3 miles below the ocean.

Hubble vs. HEXAGON

Former International Space Station flight controller Rob Landis, now technical manager in the advanced projects office at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, drove more than three hours to see the veil lifted from these legendary spacecraft.

Landis, who also worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program, noticed some distinct similarities between Hubble and the huge KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite.

“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”

The ‘convergence or confluence’ theory was confirmed later in the day by a former spacecraft designer, who declined to be named but is familiar with both programs, who confided unequivocally: “The space shuttle’s payload bay was sized to accommodate the KH-9.”

The NRO launched 20 KH-9 HEXAGON satellites from California’s Vandenberg AFB from June 1971 to April 1986.

The HEXAGON’s final launch in April 1986 — just months after the space shuttle Challenger explosion — also met with disaster as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

The spy satellite GAMBIT

Before the first HEXAGON spy satellite systems ever launched, the NRO’s GAMBIT series of reconnaissance craft flew several space missions aimed at providing surveillance over specific targets around the world.

The  satellite program’s initial system, GAMBIT 1, first launched in 1963 carrying a KH-7 camera system that included a “77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation,” according to an NRO description. A second GAMBIT satellite system, which first launched aboard GAMBIT 3 in 1966, included a175-inch focal length camera.

The GAMBIT 1 series satellite has a resolution similar to the HEXAGON series, about 2 to 3 feet, but the follow-up GAMBIT 3 system had an improved resolution of better than 2 feet, NRO documents reveal.

The GAMBIT satellite program was active from July 1963 to April 1984. Both satellites were huge and launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The satellite series’ initial version was 15 feet (4.5 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, and weighed about 1,154 pounds (523 kilograms). The GAMBIT 3 satellite was the same width but longer, stretching nearly 29 feet (9 m) long, not counting its Agena D rocket upper stage. It weighed about 4,130 pounds (1,873 kg).

Unlike the follow-up HEXAGON satellites, the GAMBIT series were designed for extremely short missions.

The GAMBIT 1 craft had an average mission life of about 6 1/2 days. A total of 38 missions were launched, though 10 of them were deemed failures, according to NRO documents.

The GAMBIT 3 series satellites had missions that averaged about 31 days. In all, 54 of the satellites were launched, with four failures recorded.

Like the CORONA and HEXAGON programs, the GAMBIT series of satellites returned their film to Earth in re-entry capsules that were then snatched up by recovery aircraft. GAMBIT 1 carried about 3,000 feet (914 meters) of film, while GAMBIT 3 was packed with 12,241 feet (3,731 meters) of film, NRO records show.

The behemoth HEXAGON was launched with 60 miles (320,000 feet) of film!

A mission description of the NRO's GAMBIT 3 spy satellite flight profiles.

This image shows the flight profile for the NRO’s GAMBIT 3 spy satellite missions between 1966 and 1984. The program was declassified in Sept. 2011.

HEXAGON and GAMBIT 3 team up

During a media briefing, NRO officials confirmed to SPACE.com that the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and KH-9 HEXAGON were later operated in tandem, teaming-up to photograph areas of military significance in both the former Soviet Union and China.

The KH-9 would image a wide swath of terrain, later scrutinized by imagery analysts on the ground for so-called ‘targets of opportunity.’ Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be maneuvered to photograph the location in much higher resolution.

“During the era of these satellites — the GAMBIT and the HEXAGON — there was a Director of Central Intelligence committee known as the ‘Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation’ that was responsible for that type of planning,” confirmed the NRO’s Robert McDonald, Director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.

NASA’s Rob Landis was both blunt and philosophical in his emotions over the declassification of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs.

“You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the CORONA and Discoverer programs,” Landis said. “He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors.”

“Frankly, I think that GAMBIT and HEXAGON helped prevent World War III.”

 

Via Space

U.S. military drones that are so small they even look like insects

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They look like children’s toys that are left discarded in wardrobes around the world.

But these innocent-looking devices are actually some of the most sophisticated drones on the planet.

The U.S. Air Force is developing the miniature spy craft with the goal of making them so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military's goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects

Causing quite a buzz: Lead researcher Dr Gregory Parker holds a small, winged drone that resembles an insect. The U.S. military’s goal is to make the devices so small that they resemble birds and even insects.

Some even have moving wings that military chiefs hope will look so convincing that people won’t pay them any attention.

The Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are being developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The base’s Air Force Research Laboratory mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

The engineers, led by Dr Gregory Parker, are using a variety of small helicopters and drones in the lab to develop the programs and software.

Testing takes place in a controlled indoor environment, during which data is gathered to analyse for further development.

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments

An insect-sized drone. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s mission is to develop MAVs that can find, track and target adversaries while operating in complex urban environments.

You'll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone

You’ll believe a toy can spy: First Lieutenant Greg Sundbeck (left) and Dr Parker watch a test flight of a drone.

The trials are the latest research into tiny drones funded by the U.S. military.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has spent years developing a whole host of cyborg critters, in the hopes of creating the ultimate ‘fly on the wall’.

Two years ago, researchers revealed that they had created cyborg beetles that can be guided wirelessly via a laptop.

Using implants, they worked out how to control a beetle’s take-off, flight and landing by stimulating the brain to work the wings.

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base

First Lieutenant Sundbeck prepares a computer controlled drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment

What on the outside appears cheap is actually camouflaged and sophisticated military equipment.

They controlled turns through stimulating the basilar muscles on one side or the other to make the wings on that side flap harder.

The embedded system uses nerve and muscle stimulators, a microbattery and a microcontroller with transceiver.

They were implanted in the beetles when they were at the pupal stage.

Three types of large beetles from Cameroon were used in the experiments at the University of California in Berkeley. The smallest was 2cm long, while the largest was 20cm.

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab

First Lieutenant Zachary Goff operates the control console during a test flight at the Micro Air Vehicles lab.

Via DailyMail

Is the space effort dying or evolving?

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Pessimists are bemoaning the end of U.S. human spaceflight, but optimists see the next few years as a transition to a new paradigm that will energize commercial ventures and get astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Nixon administration. Which way do you see it?

There seems to be plenty of gloom to go around as the space shuttle program nears its end. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and other commissions sizing up the space effort, had this to say via Twitter: “Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards through time.”

One of the astronauts on the first space shuttle flight in 1981, Bob Crippen, told me that he was disappointed that the shuttle program’s end would leave NASA “without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves.” And he questioned whether NASA had the right vision for future exploration. “I personally favored going to the moon,” he said.

The frustration flared up today during a House committee hearing with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness, or sole target. “We have waited for answers that have not come,” Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, told Bolden. “We have run out of patience. … I would like to point out today that the committee reserves the right to open an investigation into these continued delays and join the investigation initiated by the Senate.”

Bolden, a retired Marine general, took the hostile fire. “You have the right guy here to criticize,” he said. “I am the leader of America’s space program.”

He laid out the main points of the post-shuttle plan:

  • Rely on the Russians and other partners for resupply of the International Space Station, at least until U.S. companies can finish work on the space vehicles they’re developing with NASA’s backing. The first commercial cargo craft could be flying to the station by the end of this year, and U.S.-made “space taxis” could be taking on astronauts by 2015.
  • Continue work on the Orion crew vehicle, which should be capable of carrying four astronauts on more ambitious trips beyond Earth orbit. Orion had been canceled as part of the Constellation back-to-the-moon program, after $5 billion had been spent on the program, but it was essentially resurrected as NASA’s “multipurpose crew vehicle,” or MPCV.
  • Build a new Space Launch System, or SLS, which will be based on shuttle-era and Apollo-era rocket technology. The design for the SLS has not yet been announced, which is why members of Congress are so frustrated. Bolden said it could take until the end of summer or even longer to get the SLS plan through its financial review. Congress passed a law calling for the MPCV spaceship and the SLS rocket to be ready by 2016, but Bolden said the 2017-2020 time frame was more realistic.
  • NASA is aiming to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s. Other stopovers, ranging from the moon to gravitational balance points in outer space, may be added along the way.

“We are not abandoning human spaceflight,” Bolden said. “American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success.”

So there is an evolving plan for the future … just as there was an evolving plan for the space shuttle system in the early to mid-1970s when the Apollo program came to an end. Under the best-case scenario, that plan will lead to actual flights within four to six years, which is less time than it took between the last Saturn 5 and the first shuttle launch. But there are lots of questions surrounding the post-shuttle plan:

  • How much money will NASA get? A draft report from the House Appropriations Committee calls for trimming the space agency’s budget by roughly 10 percent. (For details, check Space Policy OnlineParabolic Arc and Space News.) NASA officials as well as commercial spaceship developers say that budget reductions will slow down the transition to post-shuttle spaceflight even more.
  • Will the commercial sector succeed? Right now, NASA is committed to paying the Russians $56 million for each seat on a station-bound Soyuz craft, and the price is due to go up in 2014. Commercial providers such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and the Boeing Co. say that they can beat that price, but that they need NASA’s money to help cover development costs. Shuttle program veterans say the commercial providers still have to prove that their craft will be safe and reliable.
  • Will the commercial space taxis for low Earth orbit and the Orion MPCV/SLS system for going beyond Earth orbit complement each other the way NASA hopes? Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ deputy manager for the Orion program, told me that the two-track system served as an insurance policy for the post-shuttle space effort. “There’s a little bit of competitive pressure,” he acknowledged. “If the commercial guys run into any problem or delay for any reason, then we could back them up. And similarly, if we don’t meet our milestones, the commercial guys could evolve into our niche.”

After 30 years of grand successes, tragic failures and unfulfilled promises, the era of the space shuttle is ending. We may not yet know exactly what kind of American spaceship will be the next to fly. And because of that, thousands of people will be laid off by NASA and its contractors in the weeks ahead. But we’re not witnessing the death of the American space program. At least that’s the way Elon Musk, the millionaire founder of SpaceX, sees it.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the death of anything,” he told me. “What we’re really facing is quite the opposite. I think we’re at the dawn of a new era of spaceflight, one which is going to advance much faster than it ever has in the past.”

Now why would he say that? Over the next few days, we’ll be presenting a series of Q&A interviews with Musk and other folks involved in shaping the post-shuttle era. What they’ve told me runs counter to the gloom-and-doom talk, but you might well have a different opinion. Feel free to weigh in with your comments.

 

Alan Boyle

Japan’s citizen scientists map radiation, DIY-style

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With the Japanese government only providing spotty information about the radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in the early days after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group of tech-minded citizen scientists set out to fill in the “black holes” in the knowledge base.

They did so by crafting their own Geiger counters and handing them out to volunteers in the disaster area to measure the fallout. Months later, they have assembled thousands of radiation readings plotted on maps that they hope will one day be an invaluable resource for researchers studying the impact of the meltdown at the crippled nuclear complex.

Volunteer Toshikatsu Watanabe, left, and Safecast’s Kalin Kozhuharov take radiation measurements in Koriyama, Japan.

The volunteer network of scientists, tech enthusiasts and residents of Japan collectively known as Safecast (an amalgam of “safety” and “broadcast”) sprang to life in the weeks after the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, cutting off power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and knocking out its backup generators. That shut down the plant’s cooling system, triggering meltdowns or partial meltdowns in three of the plant’s four reactors, followed by explosions that released radioactive substances into the air and allowed contaminated water to leak into the ocean.

“For the scientific community, this is a huge chance to further understand what this all means,” said Pieter Franken, co-founder of Safecast and a senior researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, which is collaborating on the project. “Chernobyl was 25 years ago and delivered lots of information. But we’re now in the Internet age, and we have a huge opportunity to do a much better job in measuring it and tracking it.”

Residents in the surrounding areas were understandably alarmed, but in the early days after the disaster, information from the government came in bits and pieces, and was difficult to find.

Franken and Sean Bonner, a Los Angeles-based technology buff involved in numerous online citizen-involved projects, saw an opportunity to use technology to augment the government’s reports and to make the information widely available.

The pair found Uncorked Studios, a Portland, Ore., website development firm, which wanted to map the radiation numbers from all sources “to try to get a better picture of things on a larger scale,” Bonner said.

‘Unknowns’
The initial effort resulted in a map that revealed the dearth of information available: “We realized that there were some massive holes and that the data that was being published was not that specific,” said Bonner. “There would be one reading for an entire city. But we wouldn’t know exactly where in the city that reading was taken.”

With so many “unknowns,” the group decided to buy as many Geiger counters as possible and distribute them to people in the map’s “black holes,” Bonner said. But that wasn’t feasible because the supply of the radiation-measuring devices was limited, he  said.

So Safecast turned to a source they knew well: Hackerspaces, a loose confederation of high-tech tinkerers around the globe.

The TokyoHackerSpace had already drafted a to-do list in the disaster’s aftermath that included radiation monitoring. But with Safecast’s encouragement, the group stepped up its efforts. Members soon figured out how to build basic Geiger counters with Geiger tubes (which measure radiation) purchased through an initial fundraising campaign and modified so they could be attached to vehicles and upload data to the Internet, Christopher Wang, a specialist in sensor networks also known by his hacker nickname of “Akiba,” wrote in an email to msnbc.com.

After meeting Safecast, the hackers decided the best use of the jury-rigged devices would be to drive around taking measurements, allowing one “Geiger counter to cover a huge amount of range,” Wang wrote.

“We put together a custom circuit board that would mount on the outside of a car and had GPS (for timestamp and location data), an input for the Geiger counter, an SD card slot (for data logging), and wireless communication (to send the data inside the car and let the driver know if they are in an area with high radiation),” he said.

Other hackerspaces around the world — such as CRASH space in Los Angeles — soon enlisted in the effort and before long Safecast had the resources to launch an ambitious measuring and mapping effort.

Components of the jury-rigged Geiger counters.

While signing up volunteers, Safecast also developed a training regimen so the recruits would be able to take reliable readings with the instruments and send the data to the group.

Having average citizens involved was crucial, Franken said.

“We want to bring the radiation levels to people’s doorstep, so people can see around their house what is happening,” he said.

Safecast took its first reading on April 16. Today, it has about 50 regular volunteers who collect data from their homes or while driving, build devices or assist in other ways. Those using vehicles equipped with Geiger counters cover an area that Franken estimates to be about 620 miles long by 185 miles wide. To date, they’ve collected 251,000 data points from their drives and fixed reporting stations, and have received about 60,000 more from other sources, including people with their own Geiger counters.

Safecast publishes the data on its website and publishes it to a number of other places so the information can be used by the greatest number of people, Bonner said. It also aggregates radiation data from a number of sources, including the Japanese government.

A Safecast map shows radiation readings from northeastern Japan.

The color-coded maps that Safecast has published don’t always agree with the government’s readings. But Franken said the effort isn’t intended to suggest that the government’s information is bad. The government currently has available a website with the readings of environmental radioactivity level by prefecture.

“We really don’t want to say that the government is wrong,” he said. “And, in fact, in many cases we find that the measurements are fairly much in sync where they are comparable — we have just much more data points and locations measured.”

For example, Safecast’s mapping has revealed some radiation hotspots far from the plant, while other areas closer to it show lower levels. This is due to local weather conditions and air flow, meaning distribution of radioactive materials is not just a matter of proximity, Franken said.

“It’s not so predictable and it really pays to go and map the whole area, and literally find areas that are higher or lower as we go,” he said, noting that in some cases radiation levels can vary by street and even within a home.

“It’s kind of a heavy task because it requires a certain amount of guts to go and do it,” he said of the volunteers, noting he had recently trained a woman and her 12-year-old son in Fukushima City how to measure radiation.

Anxiety
But knowing what the levels are has helped ease some of the anxiety over the radiation exposure, Franken said.

“The measurements may or may not affect people’s decisions but in many cases we see that it more or less gives a sense of confidence that this is what it is and, ‘yeah, I’m going to stay and this is probably going to be manageable,’ or ‘no, I really don’t want to take the risk for my family, I’m going to avoid this.’”

One of the volunteers helping in the effort is Brett Waterman, a 46-year-old Australian who runs an English-language after-school program for children nearly 30 miles from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. He has been surveying the radiation levels using a Geiger counter mounted on his car.

“There are many people who have decided that the lack of information implied that there was too much risk so they just decided to leave,” he said.

But through his work, he has learned that the radiation levels were low in the area.

“We can’t see it, but if we map it out, like we are doing street by street, we can sort of start to see it in a sense. We can get a picture of what this radiation stuff is,” he said.

His 13-year-old son is a “significant motivator” for him to take the readings. He noted that though residents don’t yet know what the long-term effects of the radiation will be, the information will be key in the future.

“In 10 years or 20 years’ time, you can’t go back to three months after the event and then find out what the data was like. But if we record it now, and then we continue to record it over the months and years to come, then from a scientific and a community point of view there is a database that can be referenced.”

Some researchers and government agencies welcome Safecast’s endeavor. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said the efforts were “necessary and helpful,” though he added two “cautionary notes.”

“The first is that the data are only useful, if it is clear (1) how the measurements were performed and (2) exactly where the measurements are performed,” he wrote in an email to msnbc.com. “In general, it is very easy to get erroneous measurements; consistency in following a specific protocol and lots of practice are necessary to do this right. … However, I will say that the data looks consistent since there are repeated measurements and they are spatially correlated. The second problem is that interpretation of the data is hard. Thus, the use of a color code is questionable.”

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment on the project.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was not in a position to comment on the initiative, but public affairs officer Scott Burnell noted in an email: “Speaking very generally, significant training and specialized equipment is required to provide the most accurate surveying and analysis of radioactive materials in the environment.”

Franken said Safecast encouraged dialogue with critics and supporters: “We feel that it is good to have an independent measurement available to people … I think just having more is probably better,” he said.

And Bonner said the initiative has the potential to eventually extend far beyond Japan.

“What all of this did sort of brought to light the fact that this data doesn’t exist in the quantities that it should and is not as readily available as would be helpful,” he said. “So while Japan is the focus at the moment, you know, longer term we sort of are shifting to a global outlook. There is a lot more ground to cover once everything in Japan is wrapped up.”

 

Via MSNBC/Miranda Leitsinger

UFOs Filmed Over London — Or Not

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For extraterrestrials notoriously shy about making their presence known to Earthlings, they have been making more and more appearances in home videos over the past six months.

One of the most famous was the UFO that appeared over the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, on January 28. Discovery News writer Ian O’Neill published one of the first analyses of the video (based in part on my own investigation), demonstrating that it was “almost certainly a hoax.”

A more comprehensive analysis by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), one of the oldest, largest, and most respected UFO investigation organizations in the world, also later concluded that it was faked.

A few months later, on April 21, another ‘alien’ home video surfaced. This one, allegedly taken in Russia, showed two young men finding an alien body on a rural, snowy farm. It, too, was soon revealed to be a hoax.

Now, right on schedule, comes yet another UFO home video, this one taken in London, England. According to a report in the Daily Mail:

“In the video, the cameraman runs towards the corner of Bolsover Street and Clipstone Street where two other men are already standing, gazing skywards, one of whom is using a mobile phone camera. As the camera is pointed upwards, over the BBC’s Yalding House, three white dots flash across the sky at great speed in a triangle formation, they are very quickly followed by two similar sized white dots. As the camera pans down again, two people on the opposite side of the road can also been seen watching events unfold above them. Then one larger, bright and more slow moving disc-shaped white object appears, circles around briefly and zips off.”

The video, one of at least two similar videos, was posted to YouTube last week and soon went viral over the Web, stirring interest and controversy among believers and skeptics alike.

Though evidence may eventually validate the video, a preliminary analysis strongly suggests that this video, like the others, is a hoax. For one thing, it’s not clear who shot the video, or even when; anonymous eyewitnesses are a red flag.

Furthermore, the UFOs (like the one that appeared in the hoaxed Jerusalem video) are very easy to fake with video-editing software, mere spots of light without structure or detail.

Adding fuel for the skeptical grist, it seems that no one else on the busy London street near the British Broadcasting Building saw the many bright glowing objects in the sky. Logic suggests that there would have been thousands of eyewitnesses, yet the cameraman captured an event that apparently no one else saw.

It’s also suspicious that though the video shows others recording the amazing event, no other photos or videos from the same angle have surfaced. Surely one of the other UFO eyewitnesses present (and seen in the video) would have come forward in the past weeks to sell their own photographs or videos to a newspaper or television station — perhaps the BBC would be interested, since it occurred above their building.

Faked UFO videos may be fun for hoaxers (or as viral marketing), but even many people firmly convinced that UFOs are real are getting tired of the hoaxes. After all, how will we know when the real UFO videos surface? No one likes to be fooled, and the best preventative is to examine all the evidence with a sense of history and a skeptical eye.

 

Via Discovery

China building an army of unmanned military drones ‘to rival the U.S.’

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America’s success with unmanned military drones has sparked a ‘global rush’ for weaponised and surveillance aircrafts, according to a new report.

Over 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones or started their own development programmes to step up military capacity in recent years.

And experts say China, having only unveiled its first drone at an air show five years ago, is on the fast track to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that rival U.S. technology.

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November.

Experts told the Washington Post America’s ‘cheap weapons, reconnaissance abilities, and ease of use, could make drones the standard for many application.’

The recent spike, they say, is ‘because no nation is exporting weaponised drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.’ And China is seeking to take a piece of the market.

Twenty five UAVs were unveiled the Zhuhai air show in southern China last November, designed and produced by China’s ASN Technology Group, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).

At the show, a crowd gathered around an armed, jet-propelled drone called the WJ-600, where a video demonstrated the aircraft locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan.

The drone is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Other models were designed to fire missiles, and one, powered by a jet engine, has the capability to fly faster than the Predator and Reaper drones the U.S. has used on missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the report.

Cheaper alternative: America's Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet's $150million price tag

Cheaper alternative: America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

It was a record number for the country, which until recently, had not extended its military capacity to include UAVs.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that while military and aviation experts said China’s drones are presumed to be several years behind the U.S., the country is on the fast track to catching up.

Retired Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Air Force, told the Washington Post: ‘We are well ahead in having established systems actively in use. But the capability of other countries will do nothing but grow.’

The industry is expected to boom over the next decade; according to a 2011 market study by the Teal Group in Fairfax, global spending on drones will double to $94billion by 2021.

Much of China’s progress remains secret.

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show.

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Exhibitors of the 25 UAVs did not disclose which aircrafts were fully operational.

However, the Wall Street Journal confirmed at least two propeller-powered UAVs had been deployed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army, told the Washington Post: ‘The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.’

U.S. anxiety about China’s UAVs was highlighted in a report released last November by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reported the Journal.

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target.

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan.

‘The PLA Air Force has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes,’ the report read.

It cited the Pentagon, continuing: ‘In addition, China is developing a variety of medium and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed will expand the PLA Air Force’s options for long-range reconnaissance and strikes.’

And other countries are following the lead; around the world UAVs are being seen as cheap and effective alternative to manned aircraft. America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

According to the Washington Post, Israel trails the U.S. as the second-largest drone manufacturer, and has flown armed models; India also announced this year it is developing armed drones that will fly at 30,000ft.

Russia has shown models of drones with weapons, but it is unknown if they are fully operational; and Pakistan has said it plans to obtain armed drones from China, according to the report.

Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University who studies the legal questions surrounding the use of drones in warfare, said: ‘This is the direction all aviation is going. Everybody will wind up using this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many applications of what are now manned aircraft.’

 

 

Via DailyMail

Sci-fi master turns into film character

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The latest movie based on Philip K. Dick’s offbeat science-fiction stories features one especially offbeat character … named Philip K. Dick.

“Radio Free Albemuth,” an indie film that is getting a sneak-preview screening tonight at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, incorporates some of the wilder parts of Dick’s biography — including his belief that he was getting information from a superintelligent, extraterrestrial entity called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

“Dick was very skeptical of these experiences,” John Alan Simon, the screenwriter, director and producer for “Radio Free Albemuth,” told me this week. “Some people think he was crazy. But if he was, he was a very lucid, skeptical kind of crazy.”

Simon will participate in a Q&A at the Seattle screening, which kicks off a weekend celebration for new inductees in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Dick, who passed away in 1982, is already in that Hall of Fame — in part because his works have been such a fertile ground for sci-fi film adaptations such as “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” ” A Scanner Darkly” and “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Unlike those tales, “Radio Free Albemuth” is set in an alternate-reality past rather than the future: a past in which a Nixon-like president burns the Watergate tapes and creates a conspiracy theory aimed at keeping him in office. Meanwhile, VALIS transmits messages down to a resistance movement. Philip K. Dick (played by Shea Whigham in the movie) is among those who are drawn into the resistance, along with the story’s protagonist (Nicholas Brady, played by Jonathan Scarfe) and a singer whose songs are encoded with subliminal messages.

The singer’s role is filled by Alanis Morissette, the Canadian-American singer/actress who just happened to play God in the 1999 film “Dogma.” Whigham is best-known for his role in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” while Scarfe has appeared in a number of TV series including “E.R.” and “CSI: Miami.” Most of the actors have had meaty roles in films and on TV, but Simon said “Radio Free Albemuth” is more about Dick’s vision rather than about big-name movie stars.

“The movie asks a lot of very, very interesting questions about ‘What is religion,’ and ‘What is God,’ and ‘What do you do if God begins sending messages to you?'” he told me. “What if God were an alien, and what if all the great religious movements of all time were inspired by the same over-intelligence in the universe? I found that a very intriguing notion. … The movie is skeptical of answers, the same way Philip K. Dick was skeptical of religion.”

Another theme in the film is sparked by the conflict between the government and the resistance. “It’s the message of ‘1984,’ the message of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’ which is the importance of the individual over the supremacy of the state,” Simon said. “That’s a timeless message.”

But the director also emphasized that the film wasn’t just a philosophical treatise. “It is, at the end of the day, an exciting science-fiction thriller. … not that dissimilar from ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” Simon said.

“Radio Free Albemuth” has been making its way through the film-festival circuit, and so far it’s gotten awards as well as accolades for staying true to the spirit of Dick’s work, even if that means the movie gets a little talky at times.

“While watching ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ has made me wonder whether stage or radio may be a better platform for a Dick adaptation, I came away from the film with that unique Dickian sense of unease, insignificance and wonder, and it’s good to see his work reproduced so faithfully on the big screen, flawed or not,”Quiet Earth’s” Ben Austwick wrote.

Simon said he hopes “Radio Free Albemuth” will build on the same sort of grass-roots interest that turned “What the Bleep Do We Know” into such a phenomenon seven years ago.

The movie seems certain to win over the sci-fi master’s hard-core fans, who call themselves “Dick-heads.” But will the wider public dial in to “Radio Free Albemuth” as well? Stay tuned. …

 

Via MSNBC