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NASA Space The Military Science

NASA Gets Two Military Spy Telescopes For Astronomy 237

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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  • Translation ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:12PM (#40212921) Homepage

    the telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office were no longer needed for spy missions and can now be used to study the heavens

    This translates to "we have far cooler spy stuff now".

    But, and here I demonstrate how little I know about satellites, would something designed for looking down at Earth be easily adapted to astronomy?

    You'd think the optics/instruments would be optimized for a different problem set.

  • Why these exist (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Maximum Prophet ( 716608 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:29PM (#40213135)
    Back in the early '80s, the NRO had extra "black projects" money, because its satellites were lasting longer than the design goals, so they didn't need as many. So they used the extra money to build a really nice campus near DC. Congress found out only after it was completed, and had a small cow.

    I imagine that that is exactly what these were, spares that were never needed. As other commentors have noticed, they probably are obsolete, and since they don't have any instruments, are probably very adaptable to astronomy.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:31PM (#40213169)

    Oh, FOREIGN intelligence. That's OK then. Those evil foreigners have no right to privacy, they aren't even *American*!

  • by f3rret ( 1776822 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @04:56PM (#40213479)

    Oh, FOREIGN intelligence. That's OK then. Those evil foreigners have no right to privacy, they aren't even *American*!

    In the eyes of the CIA and the NSA and their international counterparts, no, no they don't.

    That sort of is the whole point of intelligence gathering, just comfort yourself in the knowledge that you are nowhere near interesting enough for any agency to look at you.

  • Re:Translation ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Genda ( 560240 ) <mariet@goTIGERt.net minus cat> on Monday June 04, 2012 @05:11PM (#40213643) Journal

    Actually the mirrors are the really difficult part, with current or even slightly more advanced electronics, these critters should kick holy hinny. The really cool part, is that there are two. Place these little bad boys a couple million miles apart and now you have a Hubble class interferometer. You should be able to see aliens french kissing on planets closer than 200 light years. Add to that, these guys can be made to see in anything from infrared to hard UV, and this could be a huge boon to cosmology and those of us who enjoy astrophotography.

    My only question is if these are the discards what the heck are they watching us with now? I'm worried about street cameras, this is a whole new level of invasion of privacy. So now its "Does a bear crap in the woods, film at 11...

  • Re:Translation ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 04, 2012 @05:41PM (#40213907)

    As the Hubble approaches it's end of life and no possibility for refurbishment from the shuttle, seems that NASA should offer an X-prize to companies that can viably offer and execute a mission for unmanned or manned refurbishment of the Hubble. $500M would make an interesting prize and be only a fraction of what a servicing mission from the shuttles cost. Even if the mission just replaced consumables such as fuels, coolant and failing gyros, keeping the Hubble going for a few more years would be worth it. Such a prize could help fund SpaceX developing EVA capabilities from the Dragon and such.

  • by elwinc ( 663074 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @05:56PM (#40214025)

    There are some secondary characteristics of the mirror that may be less than perfect for optical astronomy. The Hubble mirror was ground smooth enough to focus the Lyman Alpha spectral lines of neutral hydrogen (best way to see H2 gas clouds). These wavelengths are in the UV. Presumably an earth-looking satellite won't have much use for UV, but it might be better at IR, which is also useful in astronomy. Also in service of the short wavelength goal, the Hubble primary mirror was made of a very exotic glass with near zero thermal coefficient of expansion. The mirror has glass stiffening braces in back that were *welded* on; no annealing necessary. Presumably spy satellites rarely have multi-hour exposure times, so thermal stability may not be so necessary. On the other hand, it sounds like the spy satellite secondary mirrors are adaptive optics. This is good for correcting for atmospheric distortion, but it needs a bright source (earth based scopes with AO use lasers to create a bright source high in the atmosphere for distortion correction). Perhaps the AO can be used to correct for thermal changes to the primary; I don't know...

  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @06:23PM (#40214291) Journal

    Judging from TFA (I know, I know...)

    They aren't quite built yet, and won't be ready for launch for another 8 years at least. Not sure how much of it is funded, or will be funded by anyone outside of NASA after the handoff.

    I'm thinking it's an old (and likely over-budget) black program that didn't live up to its promises, that the USAF didn't feel like funding anymore, and so they wanted to find a graceful way to dump it.

    IMHO though? Over the years, politics and politicians have shoved NASA's mission around back-and-forth enough to give it a permanent case of ADD. This only shoves it around more. I doubt that NASA really has much of a coherent mission outside of a few programs that have remained (thankfully!) largely untouched by politics.

    I may be wrong about this, but seriously - if you were A VP, in a business that was founded sought out round widgets... only to have a succession of CEOs who pushed you towards finding square ones, then polyhedral ones, then only trapezoidal ones, and then square ones plus any green triangular ones you stumble across, but then someone gives you a detector specifically built for round ones?

    Yeah... I wouldn't invest too awful much into any given new project either.

    Almost be better off giving the dosh and gear to a more focused private industry/academia/whatever at this point. :/

  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Monday June 04, 2012 @07:04PM (#40214635)

    The UV capability of Hubble was nice, but for looking into the early Universe - the current focus of research (understanding the Big Bang; understanding dark energy and dark matter) it is useless - everything of interest has been red-shifted into the IR. The whole design focus of the James Webb Telescope is IR operation, that is why it will be sent far from that big glowing heat-ball called Earth (it will have a sun shield of course).

    In longer articles (Washington Post, NY Times) they are proposing that these could be James Webb Jr. telescopes, providing some of its capability earlier, and then increasing the value of Webb by observing the "easy" stuff, leaving Webb to do what only it can do.

  • Re:Translation ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Chrontius ( 654879 ) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @02:09AM (#40216825)
    More to the point, call them Hubble-2 and Hubble-3 - And instead of the Hubble telescope, call it the Hubble mission. Call telescopes with that mirror size and configuration "Hubble class", like we have Iowa-class battleships and Arleigh Burke class destroyers, all named after the first ship of its type. This way, the Hubble mission of visible-light astronomy doesn't end with the service life of the first Hubble. On a tangent, maybe SpaceX can build a Dragon with an airlock and send people up for another servicing mission on the Mark 1, or maybe they can bring it back intact for display at the Smithstonian. Failing that, boost it into a "museum orbit" (polite term for "graveyard orbit", like is usually done with nuclear powered satellites) until it can be repaired (let's face it, space launch is getting cheap these days) or its mirrors harvested, or it can be displayed somewhere. Maybe on the first lunar Smithstonian branch, which will be built around the Apollo 11 site?

"Wish not to seem, but to be, the best." -- Aeschylus