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14 December 2004
For more information contact:
Jeffrey Richelson 202/994-7000

The Spy Satellite So Stealthy that the Senate Couldn't Kill It

Secret Program First Described in Book by Archive Senior Fellow

Washington, D.C., December 14: Front page stories in The Washington Post ("New Spy Satellite Debated on Hill," Dec. 11, 2004) and The New York Times ("New Spy Plan Said to Involve Satellite System," Dec. 12, 2004) describe a secret satellite program that the Senate intelligence committee has voted to cancel but survives in the current intelligence budget due to strong support from the House and Senate appropriations committees and the House intelligence committee.

Senator John D. Rockefeller, the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the program "is totally unjustified and very wasteful and dangerous to national security." Rockefeller, who said he had voted to terminate the program for two years but was "overruled" by the appropriations committees, was joined by three other Democratic senators in refusing to sign a compromise worked out by Senate and House negotiators over future U.S. intelligence programs.

The stealth satellite program at issue was first described publicly in Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson's book, The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, first published in 2002 (Boulder: Westview Press, 386 pp.). An excerpt from Dr. Richelson's book is posted below.

Also published here are two additional documents that shed light on this issue: a declassified National Reconnaissance memorandum from 1963 on the possibility of creating a covert satellite system; and a U.S. patent issued to Teledyne Industries in 1994 for a "satellite signature suppression shield."

Document 1: Memorandum for: Deputy for Technology/OSA, Subject: A Covert Reconnaissance Satellite, April 17, 1963, Secret

Source: NRO Reading Room

This memo addresses the possibility of creating a covert reconnaissance satellite system. The objective would be to insure that the U.S. would be able to continue to obtain high resolution photographs of targets in the Soviet Union even if the Soviets even in the face of "an intense Soviet effort" to reduce coverage. The memo specifies the requirements for establishing a covert system - requirements which include special provisions for security, launch, recovery, as well "reduction of radar and optical cross-sections below the detection threshold …"

Document 2: United States Patent 5,345,238, Satellite signature suppression shield, September 6, 1994

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, http://www.uspto.gov/

This patent claims to provide a technique that could suppress the laser, radar, visible, and infrared signatures of a satellite. Providing a satellite with such stealth capabilities would "make it difficult or impossible for hostile enemy forces to damage or destroy satellites in orbit" - which is the purpose of the invention. It is not public knowledge whether there is any similarity between the techniques proposed in this patent and the techniques employed to reduce the signatures of the MISTY satellites.

The Wizards of Langley
Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology

by Jeffrey Richelson (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002)

Excerpt: pp. 247-249

U.S. space reconnaissance systems were the primary means of collecting intelligence on Iraq and Kuwait, particularly in the period before military action began. Of particular importance were the imagery satellites the United States had in operation. Three KH-11s were in orbit, although the oldest, launched in 1984, had limited capability.

In addition, there was a satellite, known by the numerical designation 3101 and the code name ONYX, that had been launched in December 1988. Earlier, it (or the program to produce it) had been known as LACROSSE; and before that INDIGO. It was the program that nine years earlier the OD&E had tried to kill by offering to put a radar imagery capability on future versions of the KH-11. Rather than passively depending on reflected visible light or heat to produce imagery, ONYX, as QUILL had three decades earlier, relied on the active radio pulses it generated and then received back from its target. Unlike QUILL, its imagery was not stored in a capsule but transmitted to a relay satellite and then back to the United States. Although the resulting imagery was not in the same class as that of the KH-11, with a resolution of three to five feet, ONYX did have two major advantages. The KH-11 could not produce imagery in the presence of significant cloud cover, which prevented light or heat from reaching the spacecraft sensors, but ONYX could. And whereas the KH-11's visible light sensors were of little value during darkness, radar imagery systems worked well at night.

ONYX had been developed and built by Martin Marietta under the supervision of the Air Force Office of Special Projects, but there was another imagery satellite in orbit--and that was an OD&E product. When first launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on March 1, 1990, it was believed to be the first advanced KH-11 spacecraft (the first of which would be launched in 1992). Within weeks, both U.S. and Soviet sources reported it had malfunctioned and would make a "fiery reentry . . . in the next 30 days."

Both assessments were wrong. The payload was a stealth imaging satellite code-named MISTY, which had been developed under the supervision of the DS&T's development and engineering office.

MISTY was one of at least two satellites developed in exceptional secrecy subsequent to the 1983 Reagan administration decision to establish a stealth satellite program. (Note) The idea for MISTY came from OD&E engineers, some of whom had been enamored of the idea of a stealth satellite since the 1970s--having rediscovered the concept first suggested in the 1960s. The objective was to reduce the threat to U.S. satellites from the Soviet Union--whose antisatellite program was of significant concern during the early 1980s.

To help define that threat, OD&E turned to the Directorate of Intelligence's Office of Scientific and Weapons Research (OSWR)--the office formed in 1980 by the merger of the scientific and weapons intelligence offices that had been transferred to the intelligence directorate in 1976. A Threat Assessment Branch (later Center) in the OSWR Space Systems Division was established and produced an analysis that supported the idea that MISTY could be successful--it argued that Soviet radars and cameras were not very capable and were unlikely to track the satellite. But because the program was so highly compartmented, OD&E did not consult several agencies that had experience in satellite tracking--including the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), whose engineers might have provided a different assessment about MISTY'S vulnerability to detection.

A clue to possible U.S. government interest in stealth satellites was supplied just weeks after MISTY'S launch. To the anger of many in the NRO, a patent application was filed, apparently by the SDIO, for a "Satellite Signature Suppression Shield." The application described an inflatable shield that could protect satellites from detection by radar, laser, infrared, and optical systems.

But despite MISTY'S intended stealthiness, when the shuttle placed it into orbit, four civilian space observers--Russell Eberst, Daniel Karcher, and Pierre Neirinck in Europe and Ted Molczan in Canada--were able to determine that the satellite was in a 494-by-503-mile, 65-degree orbit, an orbit that did not match any other U.S. military spacecraft. In addition, the civilian observers were able to monitor a series of maneuvers performed by the satellite--including the "explosion" that may have been a tactic to deceive those monitoring the satellite or may have been the result of the jettisoning of operational debris.

The satellite did finally disappear around November 1990. In 2000, one space observer, examining orbital data from the North American Defense Command, came to the conclusion that in May 1995, the satellite was in a 451-by-461-mile orbit. Where the satellite is today is unclear, as is how much additional intelligence MISTY has yielded.

Note: The program was so secret that there was a special compartment, designated ZIRCONIC, established within the already highly secret BYEMAN Control System to designate information relating to stealth satellites. Within ZIRCONIC, yet another term, NEBULA, designated stealth satellite technology.


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