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NASA Space The Military Science

NASA Gets Two Military Spy Telescopes For Astronomy 237

Posted by samzenpus
from the hand-me-downs-for-the-heavens dept.
First time accepted submitter SomePgmr writes "The U.S. government's secret space program has decided to give NASA two telescopes as big as, and even more powerful than, the Hubble Space Telescope. Designed for surveillance, the telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office were no longer needed for spy missions and can now be used to study the heavens."
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NASA Gets Two Military Spy Telescopes For Astronomy

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  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:05PM (#40212837)

    They are sitting in a cleanroom in upstate New York [nytimes.com]. There is a longer, more detailed article [nytimes.com] in the New York Times. The satellites may save $250M each or more on various NASA missions, but they still need to be launched and have a program built around them — which may put dark matter research more than a decade ahead of schedule.

    For the folks who don't know what the National Reconnaissance Office [nro.gov] is, the NRO is the member of the US Intelligence Community [intelligence.gov] responsible for designing, building, launching, and maintaining the United States' intelligence satellites. It does not do intelligence work itself, nor does it direct the use of space assets. Judging from some of the comments on the NYT article, I should also say this: NRO has been around for a half century, and its existence was declassified two decades ago, so this isn't some kind of "new"/shadowy intelligence agency. While its work is classified, its purpose and function is well-understood.

    For a look at what kinds of work NRO does, see

    Declassified US Spy Satellites Reveal Rare Look at Secret Cold War Space Program [space.com]

    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...

    Secret No More: Spy Satellite Designer Reveals Life's Work [space.com]

    Phil Pressel had kept a secret for 46 years. A secret that he shared with no one, not even his wife, since he first went to work for the Perkin-Elmer optics company in 1965...

    Aside: I know this is difficult to comprehend for some on slashdot, but US intelligence assets in space are almost exclusively used for FOREIGN intelligence. Occasionally capabilities of, e.g., the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) may provide civil support in natural disasters. Our intelligence operations are not transparent, and are kept secret to deny our adversaries knowledge of our techniques, capabilities, sources, and methods. Be happy that we're able to repurpose for science intelligence assets that might otherwise have been destroyed or kept secret beyond all usefulness.

  • Re:Translation ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by jmauro (32523) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:17PM (#40212985)

    The article indciates that these are just the mirrors and the shells. There are no instruments and they're currently sitting in a warehouse instead of being in space. NASA would need to equip them and launch them before they could even be used for anything, but it would shorten the timeline (over the Webb Telescope) since they're similar to the existing Hubble telescope.

  • NASA Has 2 Hubbles (Score:5, Informative)

    by jcnnghm (538570) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:19PM (#40213005)

    NASA has a fully functional copy of Hubble "sitting around" at Goddard Space Flight Center as well. If something goes wrong in space, fabrication of replacement components and the training of the astronauts that will fix it does not occur in space. It is invaluable to have an exact duplicate on the ground for this reason.

    Interestingly, the total 2010 US Space budget was $64.6B. The entire rest of the world combined spent only $22.5B. NASA's 2010 budget was $18.7B. Many programs that people think are NASA projects are actually defense projects. For example, the GPS system is not included in NASA's budget, it's spearheaded by the Air Force Space Command, and comes out of the Defense budget.

    Chances are the main satellites that these are duplicates for have been decommissioned, so these are no longer needed. I would guess they are actually two distinct but similar designs, and not two copies of the same design. I would assume NASA already determined that the risk of these satellites failing and NASA being incapable of fixing them is outweighed by the desire to have higher powered telescopes in space.

    My mother has worked in the thermal blanket lab at Goddard for years. Several years ago, she got one of the engineers working on the James Webb Space Telescope to take her and I on a tour of the clean room where they are fabricating one of the core components, the micro-shutter array. The micro-shutter array is an array of 65,536 shutters on an area about the size of a postage stamp. We got to go into the clean room and see the entire process. It is very similar to the process used to fabricate semiconductors, and I think they were operating at about the 60nm level. The idea of the micro-shutter array is that each shutter can be independently operated to shut out interfering light sources, so that the telescope can look much further back in space and time for deep fields. These should be spectacular. Instead of imaging the entire shutter area as the Hubble does, JWST will be able to close all but one micro-shutter which should allow very long exposure times, and the ability to see extremely distant objects. More on the array at http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/microshutters.html [nasa.gov].

    Also, the Hubble is huge. It is a cylinder with a diameter of perhaps 15ft and a height of roughly 40ft. Pictures really don't do it justice, I had no appreciation for the size until I saw it. I know my mother did some of the thermal blanket fabrication (think the tin-foil looking stuff on the outside of spacecraft) for Servicing Mission 4. Disclaimer: This is a cross-post of something I wrote at Hacker News earlier today.

  • Re:Translation ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by necro81 (917438) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:28PM (#40213119) Journal
    As far as the optics go, the main criteria in both applications is primary mirror diameter and focal length. The application-specific stuff is further downstream in the objective optics and camera (resolution, sensitivity (both what wavelengths it is sensitive to, and the effective ISO value)). From what I gather, these cast-off telescopes have a primary mirror similar to hubble's, which results in good light gathering for both applications. They also have a shorter focal length than Hubble. That makes sense for reconnaissance, because what you are looking at is so much closer, as compared to Hubble, where you are trying to resolve things billions of light-years away. However, for dark-energy astronomy, I gather a wider field of view would be preferred, so it's serendipitous.

    Bear in mind though: these aren't complete, launch-ready satellites. You've got the major components of a telescope, but you are likely lacking the actual camera, plus most of the rest of the satellite components (solar panels, flight computer, thrusters and gyros, batteries, thermal management, etc.). Still, it gets you a lot closer than designing from scratch. Plus, by having certain components fixed from the get-go forces a lot of the rest of the design into place, rather than spending years trying to get past the blank page of infinite possibilities.
  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:42PM (#40213319) Homepage Journal

    An awful long post for one minute after the story's timestamp.

    A subscriber sees the articles before a non-subscriber, although you can't post until the story is visible to everyone. But you have plenty of time to read the article, and to jot down your thoughts and links in a text editor and wait for it to be ready for comments. Wouldn't you rather see a well thought out, informative comment like that one rather than a Frosty Piss or a joke that takes up the first 200 comments listed? I sure would!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:42PM (#40213323)

    As this NASA HUbble document says [nasa.gov] "changing to a 2.4-meter mirror would lessen fabrication costs by using manufacturing technologies developed for military spy satellites." Hubble and KH-11 were apparently shipped in much the same container [wikipedia.org] (suggesting they're physically pretty similar) and both were integrated at Lockheed's Sunnyvale, CA plant. Given that there are only so many US aerospace contractors able to work on either project, there will have inevitably been some degree of cross-fertilisation between the two. I imagine when the NASA guys get a look at their new toys they'll find it slightly familiar (the way they wouldn't at all if they'd been given two empty Russian equivalents). And when they put out to tender the work to get the things integrated and working, they'll probably end up employing the same people at Loral and Lockheed and Ball who who would have done the same work had these two gone to be recon birds.

  • by proslack (797189) on Monday June 04, 2012 @06:42PM (#40214481) Journal
    The company would not exist without billions in NASA funding. SpaceX isn't any different than Rockwell, which built the Apollo capsules, or McDonnell-Douglas, which built the Mercury capsules. We've just gone full circle back to the '60s, is all.

Computers are unreliable, but humans are even more unreliable. Any system which depends on human reliability is unreliable. -- Gilb

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