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NASA Space News Science Technology

NASA Moves Forward With Mission Using Spy Satellite Telescope (spaceflightnow.com) 53

NASA has formally approved plans -- a year ahead of schedule -- for an infrared space telescope launching around 2024 to record unique wide-angle views of the cosmos, seeking answers to questions about mysterious dark energy and searching for habitable worlds around other stars, the space agency announced Thursday. The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is projected to cost approximately $2.3 billion and should operate for at least six years. WFIRST's centerpiece is a 7.9-foot (2.4-meter) telescope originally built to allow U.S. intelligence officials to spy on adversaries. Instead of turning the powerful telescope toward Earth for a clandestine surveillance mission, NASA plans to repurpose the hardware for cosmic research.
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NASA Moves Forward With Mission Using Spy Satellite Telescope

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  • Langley (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WarJolt ( 990309 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @05:16AM (#51556965)

    Something tells me Langley launched a better spy satellite and said "what the fuck are we going to do with this old piece of shit?" And then they gave the scientists a new toy. Aren't spies great?

    • Re:Langley (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2016 @05:23AM (#51556973)

      Basically they had this device laying around on a shell and decided to give it to nasa because they don't need it anymore. They have enough of those in orbit already.

      Think about that. For Nasa it is a big thing to have a Hubble-class telescope in orbit. The intelligence agencies have them lying on a shell as a leftover..

      • Wasn't the case of the Hubble a slightly less severe version of the same thing? If memory serves, it was substantially derived from the KH-11; and its spook origins ended up being the reason that the PerkinElmer got the job to produce the mirror, having done so for the KH-9s; and ended up beating out Kodak's(actually correctly shaped) mirror.
        • And then, rather amazingly, after having presumably made the various KH-11 optics correctly, PerkinElmer somehow mysteriously did the main Hubble mirror optics wrong. I have always been suspicious of this...
          • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @01:24PM (#51559553) Homepage

            Wasn't the case of the Hubble a slightly less severe version of the same thing? If memory serves, it was substantially derived from the KH-11;

            Partly. Perkin Elmer won the bid to make the mirror (in part) because they were able to emphasize their extensive experience in making mirrors of similar size for reconnaissance satellites. The telescope itself, however, and the satellite, weren't the same.

            and its spook origins ended up being the reason that the PerkinElmer got the job to produce the mirror, having done so for the KH-9s; and ended up beating out Kodak's(actually correctly shaped) mirror.

            And then, rather amazingly, after having presumably made the various KH-11 optics correctly, PerkinElmer somehow mysteriously did the main Hubble mirror optics wrong. I have always been suspicious of this...

            No suspicion needed: the fact that their experience was in classified satellites was, to a large part, the cause of the problem: They had a null corrector tool for the Ritchey–Chrétien mirror, which, as it turns out, they did not have the right expertise to use. Since all their mirror experience was in classified projects, they had a strict corporate culture of "don't talk to anybody, ever, about anything." So, instead of asking questions, they basically experimented around with it until they thought they knew how it worked, and didn't talk with anybody about it in any way.

            Ironically, if it actually had been a mirror for the reconnaissance satellite, instead of a different (and publicly available) design, they would have already had the tool.

            • Good paranoia level = 0 explanation. Unfortunately I've been operating at paranoia level +1 level lately...
        • Re:Langley (Score:4, Interesting)

          by DanielRavenNest ( 107550 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @07:55PM (#51563217)

          I worked for Boeing in the early 1980's, and our division supplied the carbon-fiber structure for Hubble. Hubble's optics and instruments were new, but the *spacecraft* (all the other parts) were derived substantially from spy satellites. When our guys visited Lockheed during the spacecraft integration, they saw *four* high-bay clean rooms, one of which was being used by Hubble. One of our engineers asked if they (Lockheed) had done this before, and the Lockheed guys just smiled and didn't say anything. Obviously they couldn't, because it was super-secret.

          Note on the carbon fiber truss: This is what held the main mirror, secondary mirror, and the science instruments in place. They didn't want them to move when the telescope came in and out of the Earth's shadow. Carbon fiber has a negative thermal expansion coefficient (it shrinks when it gets warmer), and the epoxy matrix has a positive expansion coefficient. With the right percentage of each, you could get nearly zero expansion. But "nearly" wasn't good enough. So we made a bunch of truss pieces, measured each one, then put together a set whose "nearly zeros" cancelled out. That trick worked out great. Somewhere I've got one of the scrapped pieces as space memorabilia.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well, I'm sure that NRO would love to have more satellites up there if it were free, even if they are older tech, but mirrors aren't the most expensive part of the process (there's still assembly, and all the control systems, and launching it, and the ground setup once it's up there).

      • Re:Langley (Score:4, Interesting)

        by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @08:59AM (#51557447)

        One problem with the large-mirror spy satellites is that they can only look at one place on the ground in detail in a single pass since they only carry one large mirror. I suspect modern spy satellites carry multiple independently-targettable imaging systems with the ability to digitally combine images for higher resolution where needed on a case-by-case basis. This is similar to the way the largest land-based astronomical telescopes are now all multiple-mirror designs but without the requirement for on-the-fly reconfiguration during observation campaigns.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          the ability to digitally combine images for higher resolution

          Combining signals from two apertures to form a higher-resolution image is called interferometry. In radio interferometry, we digitise the signals from multiple apertures and combine them digitally. In optical interferometry, we directly combine the original signals - using mirrors to reflect them to a common focal plane - before recording them. The reason [1] for this is that the frequency of optical light is too high - around 10^14 Hz - for digital electronics to handle.

          So, you may be right that modern

        • Re:Langley (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @12:44PM (#51559165)
          Doesn't work like that. You can't increase resolution by combining images. Only aperture works [wikipedia.org]. So you cannot replace a large telescope with multiple independently targetable smaller telescopes.

          You can combine multiple smaller scopes by using them as if they were part of the mirror of a large telescope (imagine covering up all of the mirror of a large telescope except for two spots near the edges). That makes an interferometer and gives you the angular resolution of the larger scope (assuming the smaller scopes are positioned near the edges of the mirror of what would be the larger scope - i.e. they still have the aperture of the larger scope), but the light gathering area of the smaller scopes. The light from the two scopes has to be combined optically though. The phase information is crucial (the two mirrors have to be aligned to a fraction of a wavelength of light).

          Giving up light gathering area is not a trade-off astronomers usually want to make, but probably isn't an issue for spy satellites viewing targets bathed in sunlight. And there's been remarkable progress in the sensitivity of light sensors in the last two decades, so loss of light-gathering area probably isn't an issue for the spy satellite guys. That's probably what happened. The next gen spy satellites are probably interferometers using a synthetic aperture larger than the old 2.4 meter mirrors to achieve higher target resolution (the 2.4m mirrors were already good enough to resolve down to about 5 inches). And it was a waste of money for them to send up another spy satellite using the "older" technology, so they donated the components to NASA, where the light-gathering area might still be useful.
          • by nojayuk ( 567177 )

            The light from the two scopes has to be combined optically though. The phase information is crucial (the two mirrors have to be aligned to a fraction of a wavelength of light).

            That's not totally correct; if the processing system knows what the alignment error is at any time it can correct the image data collected, it doesn't have to have the mirrors in "perfect" mechanical alignment at all times. It's not a trivial thing to do but it's feasible. It recovers resolution at the expense of light grasp and tha

    • Re:Langley (Score:4, Informative)

      by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [ecirpdrahcir]> on Monday February 22, 2016 @06:43AM (#51557129)

      Thats pretty much what happened with Hubble - its an adapted KH-11 design using much of the infrastructure the NSA set up for that program, with NASA having to supply the optics and support systems.

      The NSA has also offered NASA redundant mirrors and systems that are pretty much identical to the Hubble layout but with better capabilities.

      • by phayes ( 202222 )

        From comments in TFA, the gift is limited to the mirror itself and not the rest of the systems around it leaving me wondering why Nasa doesn't use the defect free Kodak produced mirror for yet another project instead of leaving it at the Smithsonian. Surely there is another project that could benefit from another 2.4 meter mirror.

      • Keyhole is a NRO operation.

      • by delt0r ( 999393 )
        Hubble is diffraction limited. Unless you can change the laws of physics you can't add a better mirror without making it bigger.

        The NSA can't break the laws of physics.
  • I guess calling it W-FIST would have been a bit edgy?
  • by Bearhouse ( 1034238 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @05:50AM (#51557037)

    Excellent! I wonder how much extra science could be done if the all under-utilised kit lying around in the world's militaires was donated...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      These re-purposed instruments have a bad tendency of seeing Bin Laden in the stars. Optical bias, they call it.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      Von Braun once said something like, "I don't regret designing (V2) rockets. What I regret is they were pointed at the wrong planet."

  • by Ecuador ( 740021 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @06:42AM (#51557127) Homepage

    Am I the only one surprised that the US intelligence has a bunch of space telescopes the size of Hubble? I mean, I get spy satellites etc, I did expect a lot of money to go there, but they have enough scopes THE SIZE OF HUBBLE to give away 2 of them like that? Perhaps they have even larger ones, and the HST that was made into a big deal about how expensive complex and unique it was, was never close to being the largest space telescopes, just the only one pointed at the right things?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You realize Hubble itself is a modified government satellite, right?


    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday February 22, 2016 @08:00AM (#51557281) Journal
      The details are easier to come by for the oldest gear(since they've had the most time to diffuse and in some cases have been formally declassified because they are obsolete); but there are a lot of spy satellite launches.

      KH-1's had 10 launches, KH-2 7, KH-3 9, KH-4 26, KH-4A 56, KH-4B 17, KH-5 12, KH-6 3, KH-7 38, KH-8 54, KH-9 20. KH-10 didn't go anywhere; but kindly donated 6 72-inch optical mirrors to the Multiple Mirror Telescope. KH-11 superceded KH-10 and saw 16 launches. Information about 'Misty' and 'Enhanced Imaging System' is new enough to be... spotty. And those are just the ones with some substantial optical component that makes them a crossover with astronomy.

      One thing to note, in fairness, is that pre-KH-11, these satellites actually used film, with various re-entry pods to send it back to earth for processing, so their missions were of necessarily limited duration. Only the more recent digital imaging satellites even have the option of long term operation, with mission lifespans depending on what orbit you want, whether anything goes wrong, fuel supply, and so on.
      • ...so their missions were of necessarily limited duration...

        From TFS:

        ...$2.3 billion and should operate for at least six years...

        Unless I've slipped a digit, that's about $43,000 an hour. That seems to me to be both limited duration and very expensive for what amounts to just more IR photos of the universe.

        I am pro-space, and I make no bones about it. However:

        I think that deployment of this kind of observation tool would make more sense at a later date when instruments like it (and of a certainty, better th

        • Remember that Spirit and Opportunity were expected to operate for at least 90 days. There's the conservative estimate for how long something should last, and there's how long it actually lasts after the mission starts.

          There is work being done on the maintainable infrastructure, but it's mostly being done by private companies like Bigelow.

        • by delt0r ( 999393 )
          Who knew pushing the limits of science can't be done in your basement, and is expensive. Especially if you want to do it space. A shuttle launch, just a launch use to cost 500M!
      • The primary reason for the Space Shuttle program's existence was to service these spy satellites in orbit. Originally in the design phase it was to reload film, but as digital sensors became realistic the mission changed to refueling, upgrading, and maintaining. That was the design criteria which dictated the size of the payload bay.

        I don't think it worked though. Most spy satellites are launched into a polar orbit to maximize coverage of the earth's surface. An equatorial orbit like out of Kennedy o
    • The spy satellites are no where near as complicated as Hubble. They weren't designed for use by multiple instruments, they don't have to track objects for hours, and they weren't designed to be serviced in space. They are designed to perform a single purpose, making it much easier to operated and control. Hubble takes pictures of some of the dimmest objects in the universe. The spy satellites take pictures of objects only a few miles below them in broad daylight.
    • Dude they had a fully functional parallel space shuttle program, for god's sake.

    • NASA's annual budget is about $18.5 billion, but what they actually spend on satellites is a small fraction of that.

      NRO's annual budget is estimated to be about $16 billion, according to Wikipedia. And their main mission is spy satellites.

      And the Air Force spends about $3.7 billion annually in space-related R&D and execution.

      So, NASA has a lot of well funded, US-based "competition" on the satellite front, although the budgets of its competitors is usually classified. I'm glad to hear that th

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      These are failed spysats. The program to build them was cancelled when the cost went up and improvement over existing systems went down.
      These are left over hardware from the program and where offered to NASA. It is not the first time after all NASA got hardware like this. NASA flew the YF-12a and the F-107 for many years after those programs shutdown.

  • I mean wow! How much technology and power NASA got that they are moving forward mission using spy satellite. Great to read.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 22, 2016 @09:02AM (#51557457)

    Take a look at the early history of satellite reconnaissance

    From the early days, there has always been 3 prongs of the US space program: NASA is the public one with stated science goals, etc.; DoD has theirs which is a bit less public: ICBMs, Weather satellites, Communications; and then the intelligence community, which is very obscured.

  • Make sense that the production capacity for wind is growing. The wind is free - once you pay the fixed costs, there is virtually no variable costs. Nuclear and coal on the other hand have to pay for the fuel and also have to deal with the waste. Same is valid for solar. Once we have reliable storage options, the renewables will explode.

I'm always looking for a new idea that will be more productive than its cost. -- David Rockefeller