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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Hacking Shelters And Swimming Pools

How would you survive in a war-torn country, where bombs could potentially fall from the sky with only very short notice? And what if the bomb in question were The Bomb — a nuclear weapon? This concern is thankfully distant for most of us, but it wasn’t always so. Only 75 years ago, bombs were raining down on England, and until much more recently the threat of global thermonuclear war was encouraging school kids to “duck and cover”. How do you protect people in these situations?

The answers, naturally, depend on the conditions at hand. In Britain before the war, money was scarce and many houses didn’t have basements or yards that were large enough to build a family-sized bomb shelter in, and they had to improvise. In Cold War America, building bomb shelters ended up as a boon for the swimming pool construction industry. In both cases, bomb shelters proved to be a test of engineering ingenuity and DIY gumption, attempting to save lives in the face of difficult-to-quantify danger from above.

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Spy Tech: Tiny Spy Plane Becomes Cold War Prize

What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.

The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.

The Spy Who Photographed Me

With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.

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Milspec Teardown: C-1282 Chaff Controller

A B-52 bomber is approaching its primary target: rail yards in the Beloostrov district of Leningrad. Intel reports the area is likely defended by S-25 Berkut and S-75 Dvinia surface to air missiles (SAMs), but this close to the target the gigantic bomber can’t afford to make the evasive maneuvers, known as combat turns, which would help shake off enemy air defenses. From his position behind the co-pilot, the electronic warfare officer (EWO) reaches over and sets the C-1282 for continuous chaff ejection. Hundreds of thin metallic strips are jettisoned from the B-52, confusing tracking radar and allowing the bomber and her crew to slip through the Soviet air defenses and drop 50,000 lbs of ordnance directly onto the target.

Luckily for all of us, this event never actually occurred. But it was a possibility that the United States and Soviet Union had prepared for extensively. Both sides developed ever more capable weapons, and for each new weapon, a new countermeasure was invariably created. The C-1282 is a component of one such countermeasure, a device that allowed the B-52’s EWO to configure and monitor the bomber’s automatic chaff dispenser. With the C-1282 handling the anti-radar countermeasures, the bomber’s crew could focus their attention on completing their mission.

Of course, as is the case with technology (military or otherwise), the C-1282 was eventually phased out for something new. These old units, now largely worthless, were destroyed or sentenced to a lifetime collecting dust on a storeroom shelf. But through the magic of the Internet, one of these devices is now ready to be laid bare for your viewing pleasure. Dust off your Joseph McCarthy Junior Detective badge and come along as we take a look at a state of the art piece of Anti-Ruskie technology, circa 1960.

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Bomb Hoist Teardown Shows Cold-War-Era Big Iron

Buying surplus equipment lends a frisson of excitement as you eagerly await the package or crate containing your purchase. Did you buy a hidden treasure, or has some shyster succeeded in unloading a pile of garbage onto you, their mark? [Professor Churls] shelled out $49.99 for a military surplus bomb hoist which definitely falls into the former category. His teardown reveals it to be a beautifully over-engineered piece of Cold-War-era American hardware.

As the package with its extremely heavy contents is first inspected, he reminds us just what a bomb hoist does, it is clipped to an aircraft by ground crew and serves as a small but extremely powerful crane to lift up to a 6000-pound piece of ordnance onto the wing pylon of an aircraft. This particular example dates from the 1960s, and features a 28-volt DC motor coupled to a bulky gearbox assembly on a swivel mount for attachment.

His teardown is extremely detailed, but such is the engineering and complexity of the device you’ll want to read every part of it. The motor is a fairly traditional separately-excited brushed DC design such as you’d expect from that era, but with unusual features such as brushes on pivots rather than a slide. The multiple sets of gears are packed in aged and phenolic-smelling grease, and have unusual features such as stub-form teeth for high torque at low durations. There is even an entirely separate gear train for the hex drive provided so that crews could keep the bombers rolling even when the power was out.

He leaves us with the tantalising information that there is a project awaiting this device, but doesn’t tell us what that might be. We hope we’ll get to see it, whatever it is. Meanwhile it’s great to see that this kind of item can still be found from military surplus suppliers, where this is being written they have degenerated into little more than stockists of camouflage-printed camping gear. Our colleague [Brandon Dunson] lamented in 2015 on the slow decline of the electronic surplus business in his location.