Civil Defense Disco Ball Rocks Ground Zero

Old Civil Defense survey meters like the V-715 are interesting conversation starters, but of very little practical use today. These devices were intended to be a sort of litmus test that survivors of a nuclear blast could use to determine when it was safe to venture out of their radiation shelter: if the needle on the meter moves, even when it’s on the most sensitive setting, you should probably go back inside. Since [Hamilton Karl] would (hopefully) never need such an indicator, he decided to have a little fun with this Cold War holdover and turn it into a Disco Containment Unit.

Technical details are a little sparse on this one, but we can infer most of it just from the pictures. In place of the original meter [Hamilton] has mounted a tiny mirrored ball inside of a protective cage, which is spun by a geared motor that’s occupying the space that used to be taken up by the ion chamber.

A handful of Adafruit NeoPixel RGB LEDs, an Arduino Nano, and a few switches to control it all round out the functional aspects of the build, and a new disco-themed trefoil replaces the original Civil Defense logo on the side. The project page mentions there’s a piezo buzzer onboard that performs a stirring rendition of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, but alas there’s no video that shows it in action.

Thanks to the rugged construction and built-in handle of these old survey meters, [Hamilton] can now take the party with him wherever he goes. Not that he can really go anywhere with this whole global pandemic hanging over our heads, but at least he’ll be ready when things start trending towards normal. In a way the device’s functionality has now been reversed from how it originally worked, since the meter going wild will now be an indicator that its safe to come out.

While the V-715 isn’t of much use outside of a post-apocalyptic hellscape, the V-700 is actually a proper Geiger counter that’s still useful for surveying or research. An important distinction to remember if you ever get a chance to snap one of them up at a swap meet or flea market. Whenever we can start having those again, anyway.

Indoor Antennas Worthy Of 007

Many ham radio operators now live where installing an outdoor antenna is all but impossible. It seems that homeowner’s associations are on the lookout for the non-conformity of the dreaded ham radio antenna. [Peter] can sympathize, and has a solution based on lessons of spycraft from the cold war.

[Peter] points out that spies like the [Krogers] needed to report British Navy secrets like the plans for a nuclear boomer sub to Russia but didn’t want to attract the attention of their neighbors. In this case, the transmitter itself was so well-hidden that it took MI5 nine days to find the first of them. Clearly, then, there wasn’t a giant antenna on the roof. If there had been, the authorities could simply follow the feedline to find the radio. A concealed spy antenna might be just the ticket for a deed-restricted ham radio station.

The antenna the [Kroger’s] used was a 22-meter wire in the attic of their home. Keep in mind, the old tube transmitters were less finicky about SWR and by adjusting the loading circuits, you could transmit into almost anything. Paradoxically, older houses work better with indoor antennas because they lack things like solar cell panels, radiant barriers, and metallic insulation.

Like many people, [Peter] likes loop antennas for indoor use. He also shows other types of indoor antennas. They probably won’t do as much good as a proper outdoor antenna, but you can make quite a few contacts with some skill, some luck, and good propagation. [Peter] has some period spy radios, which are always interesting to see. By today’s standards, they aren’t especially small, but for their day they are positively tiny. Video after the break.

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Russian Doomsday Radios Go Missing

Normally we like hearing about old military gear going on the surplus market. But if you encounter some late-model Russian radio and crypto equipment for sale you might want to make sure it isn’t hot (English translation). If you prefer not picking through the machine translation to English, the BBC also has a good write-up.

The Russians maintain four large planes set up as flying command and control bunkers in case of nuclear war — so-called “doomsday planes.” Like the U.S. ABNBC (better known as Looking Glass) fleet, the planes can provide the President or other senior leaders a complete command capability while in flight. As you might expect, the radios and gear on the plane are highly classified.

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AUTOVON: A Phone System Fit For The Military

It’s a common enough Hollywood trope that we’ve all probably seen it: the general, chest bespangled with medals and ribbons, gazes at a big screen swarming with the phosphor traces of incoming ICBMs, defeatedly picks up the phone and somberly intones, “Get me the president.” We’re left on the edge of our seats as we ponder what it must be like to have to deliver the bad news to the boss, knowing full well that his response will literally light the world on fire.

Scenes like that work because we suspect that real-life versions of it probably played out dozens of times during the Cold War, and likely once or twice since its official conclusion. Such scenes also play into our suspicion that military and political leaders have at their disposal technologies that are vastly superior to what’s available to consumers, chief among them being special communications networks that provide capabilities we could only have dreamed of back then.

As it turns out, the US military did indeed have different and better telephone capabilities during the Cold War than those enjoyed by their civilian counterparts. But as we shall see, the increased capabilities of the network that came to be known as AUTOVON didn’t come so much from better technology, but more from duplicating the existing public switched-telephone network and using good engineering principles, a lot of concrete, and a dash of paranoia to protect it.

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Hackaday Links: March 1, 2020

Talk about buried treasure: archeologists in Germany have – literally – unearthed a pristine Soviet spy radio, buried for decades outside of Cologne. While searching for artifacts from a Roman empire settlement, the archeologists found a pit containing the Soviet R-394KM transceiver, built in 1987 and apparently buried shortly thereafter without ever being used. It was found close to a path in the woods and not far from several sites of interest to Cold War-era spies. Curiously, the controls on the radio are labeled not in Cyrillic characters, but in the Latin alphabet, suggesting the radio was to be used by a native German speaker. The area in which it was found is destined to be an open-cast lignite mine, which makes us think that other Cold War artifacts may have fallen victim to the gore-covered blades of Bagger 288.

Good news for Betelgeuse fans, bad news for aficionados of cataclysmic cosmic explosions: it looks like the red giant in Orion isn’t going to explode anytime soon. Betelgeuse has been dimming steadily and rapidly since October of 2019; as a variable star such behavior is expected, but the magnitude of its decline was seen by some astronomers as a sign that the star was reaching the point in its evolution where it would go supernova. Alas, Betelgeuse started to brighten again right on schedule, suggesting that the star is not quite ready to give up the ghost. We’d have loved to witness a star so bright it rivals the full moon, but given the times we live in, perhaps it’s best not to have such a harbinger of doom appear.

If you plan to be in the Seattle area as the winter turns to spring, you might want to check out the Vintage Computer Fair Pacific Northwest. We visited back during the show’s first year and had a good time, and the Living Computers: Museum + Labs, where the event is held, is not to be missed. The Museum of Flight is supposed to be excellent as well, and not far away.

Mozilla announced this week that Firefox would turn on DNS over HTTPS (DoH) by default in the United States. DoH encrypts the DNS requests that are needed to translate a domain name to an IP address, which normally travel in clear text and are therefore easily observed. Easily readable DNS transactions are also key to content blockers, which has raised the hackles of regulators and legislators over the plan, who are singing the usual “think of the children” song. That DoH would make user data collection and ad-tracking harder probably has nothing to do with their protests.

And finally, sad news from California as daredevil and amateur rocketeer “Mad” Mike Hughes has been killed in a crash of his homemade rocket. The steam-powered rocket was to be a follow-up to an earlier, mostly successful flight to about 1,900 feet (580 m), and supposed to reach about 5,000 feet (1.5 km) at apogee. But in an eerily similar repeat of the mishap that nearly killed Evel Knievel during his Snake River Canyon jump in 1974, Mike’s parachute deployed almost as soon as his rocket left the launch rails. The chute introduced considerable drag before being torn off the rocket by the exhaust plume. The rocket continued in a ballistic arc to a considerable altitude, but without a chute Mike’s fate was sealed. Search for the video at your own peril, as it’s pretty disturbing. We never appreciated Mike’s self-professed Flat Earth views, but we did like his style. We suppose, though, that such an ending was more likely than not.

Hide Silent, Hide Deep: Submarine Tracking Technologies Of The Cold War

All through the cold war, there was a high-stakes game of cat and mouse in play. Nuclear powers like the United States and the Soviet Union would hide submarines armed with nuclear missiles underwater. The other side would try to know where they were so they could be targeted in the event of war. The common wisdom was that the United States had many high tech gadgets to help track enemy submarines, but that the Soviet Union was way behind in this area. This was proven false when a Soviet Victor-class boat followed a US missile submarine for six days. Now, a recently declassified CIA report shows how the Soviets didn’t use sonar at all but developed their own technology.

There is something fascinating about submarines. Like an old sailing ship, submarines are often out of touch with their command bases and the captain is the final authority. Like a space ship, the submarine has to survive in an inimical environment. I guess in all three cases, the crew doesn’t just use technology, they depend on it.

Although the submarine has some non-military uses, there are probably more military subs than any other type. After all, a sub is as close to a cloaking device as any real-life military vehicle has ever had. Before modern technology offered ways to find submarines using sonar or magnetic anomalies, a completely submerged submarine was effectively invisible.

There was a lot of speculation that the Soviet Union lacked sufficient technology to use sonar  the way the US did. However, in some cases, they had simply developed different types of detection — many of which the West had discarded as impractical.

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Watching The Watchers: The State Of Space Surveillance

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the recent release of a high-resolution satellite image showing the aftermath of Iran’s failed attempt to launch their Safir liquid fuel rocket. The geopolitical ramifications of Iran developing this type of ballistic missile technology is certainly a newsworthy story in its own right, but in this case, there’s been far more interest in how the picture was taken. Given known variables such as the time and date of the incident and the location of the launch pad, analysts have determined it was likely taken by a classified American KH-11 satellite.

The image is certainly striking, showing a level of detail that far exceeds what’s available through any of the space observation services we as civilians have access to. Estimated to have been taken from a distance of approximately 382 km, the image appears to have a resolution of at least ten centimeters per pixel. Given that the orbit of the satellite in question dips as low as 270 km on its closest approach to the Earth’s surface, it’s likely that the maximum resolution is even higher.

Of course, there are many aspects of the KH-11 satellites that remain highly classified, especially in regards to the latest hardware revisions. But their existence and general design has been common knowledge for decades. Images taken from earlier generation KH-11 satellites were leaked or otherwise released in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the Iranian image is certainly of a higher fidelity, this is not wholly surprising given the intervening decades.

What we know far less about are the orbital surveillance assets that supersede the KH-11. The satellite that took this image, known by its designation USA 224, has been in orbit since 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has launched a number of newer spacecraft since then, with several more slated to be lifted into orbit between now and 2021.

So let’s take a closer look at the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites, and compare that to what we can piece together about the next generation or orbital espionage technology that’s already circling overhead might be capable of.

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