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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

Mini-weapons sought by Pentagon for new era of warfare

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A sleek, delta-winged robotic jet took to the skies for the first time above the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Boeing Co.’s experimental drone, dubbed Phantom Ray, flew to 7,500 feet and reached speeds of 205 mph in its first flight. The 17-minute flight took place April 27, but Boeing officials did not confirm details until Tuesday.

 

The Phantom Ray, which resembles a giant boomerang, is being developed by the Chicago company for a variety of missions. Its stealthy design could enable it to slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

At L-3 Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, technicians work in secure rooms developing a GPS guidance system for a 13-pound “smart bomb” that would be attached to small, low-flying drone.

Engineers in Simi Valley at AeroVironment Inc. are developing a mini-cruise missile designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack, be fired from a mortar and scour the battlefield for enemy targets.

And in suburban Portland, Ore. Voxtel Inc. is concocting an invisible mist to be sprayed on enemy fighters and make them shine brightly in night-vision goggles.

These miniature weapons have one thing in common: They will be delivered with the help of small robotic planes. Drones have grown in importance as the Pentagon has seen them play a vital role in Iraq, Afghanistan and reportedly in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Now, engineers in Southern California and elsewhere are refining drone technology to deliver a powerful wallop with increasingly smaller robotic planes — many of which resemble model aircraft buzzing around local parks.

This work is aimed primarily at one buyer —the Pentagon, which is seeking a total of $671 billion for fiscal 2012. Of that, drones represent $4.8 billion, a small but growing segment of the defense budget — and that doesn’t include spending on robotic weapons technology in the classified portion of the budget.

This comes at a time when expensive weapons programs, like Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles and Navy cruisers, are being eyed for trims.

Although some mini-weapons may resemble toys, they represent a new wave of sophisticated technology in modern warfare, which has forced the military and weapons-makers to think small. And they are just a few under development that have been disclosed.

“There are a lot of weapons in the military’s arsenal,” said Lt. Col. Brad Beach, an official who coordinates the Marines’ drone technology. “But what we don’t have is something small.”

The military is flush with multi-ton bunker-busting bombs designed to reduce fortified buildings into smoldering rubble.

But Marines on the front lines in Afghanistan say there is an urgent need for a weapon that is small and powerful enough to protect them from insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound “smart bomb” has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.

Miniature

“Soldiers are watching bad guys plant” roadside bombs and “can’t do anything about it,” said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. “They have to call in an air strike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great.”

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane’s wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart “soft” targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

Raytheon does not yet have a contract for the bomb and is building it entirely with its own money.

“We’re proactively anticipating the military’s need,” said Tretschok, who is testing the technology at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

In a similar fashion, drone-maker AeroVironment in Simi Valley didn’t wait for the government when it started to build its Switchblade mini-cruise missile to seek and destroy nearby targets.

The little missile, which looks less harmless than many Fourth of July fireworks, is fired from a mortar, unfolds its wings as it goes, and begins sending live video and GPS coordinates to the soldier who launched it.

The 2-foot-long battery-powered drone would be tipped with a tiny warhead and remotely operated from a handheld controller. It is being designed to fly above a warzone for at least five minutes for more than a mile at a time.

“This technology gives the war fighter the ability to pinpoint where and when he strikes,” said Steven Gitlin, an AeroVironment spokesman. “It’s all about precision.”

Critics say the technology may be too imprecise and hard to track, said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But the weapons have sophisticated internal guidance systems, which is key because much of today’s fighting takes place in crowded urban environments, such as targets located in or near population centers, he said.

“Weapons are sometimes only usable today if they’re small. The bottom line is: You’re not going to go around dropping 500-pound bombs everywhere,” O’Hanlon added. “Collateral damage is unacceptable in modern warfare.”

Knowing this, the military has embarked on using mini-drones for a “tagging, tracking and locating” initiative, which centers on secretly marking a target with invisible sprays and other identifiers so they don’t get lost in crowds.

Companies like Beaverton, Ore.-based Voxtel have benefited from the millions of dollars that the government is handing to contractors for research. The small 30-person company, which makes tagging products to prevent the counterfeiting of bank notes, lottery tickets and other items, now believes its microscopic nanocrystals — which become part of an invisible spray — may be are exactly what the military needs.

Tagging, tracking and locating “is a hot topic in government work,” said George Williams, company president. “It isn’t easy tracking somebody in a crowded urban environment like what is seen in today’s wars.”

Indeed. Earlier this year, the Air Force asked for proposals on developing a way to “tag” targets with “clouds” of unseen materials sprayed from quiet, low-flying drones.

In its request, the Air Force said “one method of distribution would be ‘crop-dusting’ from a sufficiently high altitude (to avoid detection) and letting the dust-cloud fall on a target or in front of it if it is moving.”

Other methods suggested to covertly mark the targets were to “pneumatically blow a cloud” or “burst above” them.

As the military moves into miniaturizing its weapon stockpile, contractors believe applications such as these may be crucial to the overall effort. “What we do is just one part of a complex system,” Voxtel President Williams said. “We play a small role.”

– William.Hennigan

Via L.A. Times

How Area 51 Hid Secret Craft

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Area 51 plane crash cover-up picture: a mock-up of a secret spy plane is hoisted upside down on a pylon.

ON TV: Area 51 Declassified premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.

No word yet on alien starships, but now that many Cold War-era Area 51 documents have been declassified, veterans of the secret U.S. base are revealing some of the clever—and surprisingly low-tech—ways they hid futuristic prototypes from prying eyes.

(Also see “Exclusive Area 51 Pictures: Secret Plane Crash Revealed.”)

The CIA created Area 51 in 1955 to test and develop top secret U.S. military projects in the remote Nevada desert. More than 50 years later, the base still doesn’t officially exist and appears on no public U.S. government maps.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Area 51 was the epicenter of the OXCART project, intended to create the successor for the U-2 spy plane.

The OXCART plane was expected to be undetectable in the air as it flew surveillance and information-gathering missions over the Soviet Union. But Area 51 personnel soon found it necessary to conceal the craft from the Soviets eyes even when it was still being tested on the ground.

Cat and Mouse at Area 51

It was discovered that Soviet spy satellites, dubbed ash cans by Area 51 staff, were making regular rounds over Nevada.

U.S. intelligence agencies, though, provided Area 51 workers with a decisive advantage in this international “game of cat and mouse,” according to T.D. Barnes, a former hypersonic flight specialist at Area 51 whose expertise was in electronic counter measures.

No longer sworn to secrecy by the CIA, Barnes said, “In our morning security meetings, they’d give us a roster of the satellites that the Soviets had in the air, and we’d know the exact schedule of when they were coming over.

“It was like a bus schedule, and it even told us whether it was an infrared satellite or what type it was,” Barnes told National Geographic news.

The Area 51 Hoot and Scoot

Often hoisted atop tall poles for radar tests of the planes’ stealthiness, OXCART prototypes were tested outside—making the Soviet spy satellites especially aggravating.

“We had hoot-and-scoot sheds, we called them,” Barnes says in the new National Geographic Channel documentary Area 51 Declassified. (The Channel is part-owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

“If a plane happened to be out in the open while a satellite was coming over the horizon, they would scoot it into that building.”

Former Area 51 procurement manager Jim Freedman adds, “That made the job very difficult, very difficult.

“To start working on the aircraft and then have to run it back into the hangar and then pull it out and then put it in and then pull it out—it gets to be quite a hassle,” Freedman says in the film.

(Also see “Cold War Spy Plane Found in Baltic Sea.”)

Shadows of Area 51

It turned out that even laborious hooting and scooting weren’t enough. Spies had learned that the Soviets had a drawing of an OXCART plane—obtained, it was assumed, via an infrared satellite.

As a plane sat in the hot desert, its shadow would create a relatively cool silhouette, visible in infrared even after the plane had been moved inside.

“It’s like a parking lot,” Barnes told National Geographic News. “After all the cars have left you can still see how many were parked there [in infrared] because of the difference in ground temperatures.”

To thwart the infrared satellites, Area 51 crews began constructing fanciful fake planes out of cardboard and other mundane materials, to cast misleading shadows for the Soviets to ponder. (Not intended to be seen, the decoys themselves were scooted out of sight before satellite flyovers.) Sometimes staff even fired up heaters near imaginary engine locations to make it look as if planes had just landed.

“We really played with the infrared satellites,” Barnes recalled.

Ahead of Its Time—And Gone Before Its Time?

As for the real U-2 successor, the Soviets never solved the secrets of OXCART before the program was made public in the mid-1960s.

But during the course of some 2,850 top-secret test flights numerous people did see an oddly shaped (for the time), Mach-3 aircraft. Unidentifiable even to air controllers or commercial pilots, the gleaming titanium craft no doubt helped fuel the persistent rumors connecting UFOs with Area 51.

In the end, the result of all the subterfuge was the Archangel-12, or A-12, considered by some to be the first true stealth plane. (Related: “‘Hitler’s Stealth Fighter’ Re-created.”)

The A-12 could travel over 2,000 miles an hour (3,220 kilometers an hour) and cross the continental U.S. in 70 minutes—all while taking pictures that could resolve foot-long objects on the ground from an altitude of 90,000 feet (27,430 meters).

But despite being “the most advanced aircraft ever built,” as CIA historian David Robarge writes, the A-12 never saw spy service over the Soviet Union. And just as the Archangel was to be deemed ready for operation, its successor, the U.S. Air Force’s famed SR-71 Blackbird, was already in the works.

Due to fiscal pressures and Air Force/CIA competition, Robarge writes, the A-12, one of Area 51’s greatest creations—at least that we know about—was decommissioned in 1968 after only a year in active service.

Via NatGeo