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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Downloading Satellite Images Via FM Radio

Did you know weather satellites transmit their weather images over an FM frequency? And now that you know… You can intercept them yourself with a $10 FM radio dongle!

American NOAA weather satellites are in a polar orbit around earth, and each one will pass the same point approximately every 12 hours. When it is overhead, the signal is strong enough to receive. After [Matt] found out this tidbit of knowledge, he had to learn how to intercept the images himself.

The satellites¬†transmit the images over the 137MHz band, and using a radio tuner USB dongle, you can record the transmission and then decode it into a picture. He used CubicSDR to tune and record the signal, and then Soundflower to pull out interference, and finally WXtoIMG — which starts recording when the satellite is above, and decodes the image.

[Thanks for the tip Amirgon!]