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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When you think about space stations, which ones come to mind first? You might think Skylab, the International Space Station (ISS), or maybe Russia’s Mir. But before any of those took to the heavens, there was Salyut.
Russia’s Salyut 1 was humankind’s first space station. The ensuing Salyut program lasted fifteen years, from 1971 to 1986, and the lessons learned from this remarkable series of experiments are still in use today in the International Space Station (ISS). The program was so successful at a time when the US manned space program was dormant that one could say that the Russians lost the Moon but won the space race.
Ever hear of the Soviet Luna program? In the west, it was often called Lunik, if you heard about it at all. Luna was a series of unmanned moon probes launched between 1959 and 1976. There were at least 24 of them, and 15 were successful. Most of the failures were not reported or named. Luna craft have a number of firsts, but the one we are interested in is that it may have been the first space vehicle to be stolen — at least temporarily — in a cold war caper worthy of a James Bond novel.
Around 1960, the Soviet Union toured several countries with exhibits of their industrial and technological accomplishments. One of the items on display was the upper stage of a Luna vehicle with windows cut out to show the payload inside. At first, the CIA suspected the vehicle was just a model. But they wanted to be sure.