We Are the NRO: Research and Development at the NRO


Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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We Are the NRO: Research and Development at the NRO (they don't say much because they can't, but "quantum sensing" mention is interesting)
19 Nov 2019

NRO gives NASA two hand-me-down telescopes
7 Jun 2012


The National Reconnaissance Office, America's intelligence agency for space-based surveillance, has donated two, partially-completed space telescopes to NASA.

That's right: two telescopes, similar in design to the Hubble Space Telescope, for free.
Where did they come from?

According to Paul Hertz, the telescopes are currently sitting quietly in a clean room at ITT Exelis in Rochester, New York. Exelis is a big player in aerospace defense. To give you an idea of just how big, consider that the company claims its technology has been aboard every GPS satellite put into orbit.

Speculation about the the telescopes' origin immediately focused on a National Reconnaissance Office satellite surveillance program called "Keyhole." The NRO launched the first Keyhole satellite in 1976, according to a 2009 article by Dwayne Day for The Space Review.

The story is thought to go something like this (since we're dealing with classified information, nothing can be said with absolute certainty): at the time of Day's article, fourteen Keyholes were believed to have been launched in four increasingly-sophisticated types, called "blocks." A fifteenth Keyhole was apparently sent into orbit via NROL-49, launched in January 2011.

In 1998, the U.S. government put out a call for proposals to replace the Keyholes with a new, sophisticated program called "Future Image Architecture." Although Lockheed Martin was the biggest player in satellite surveillance at the time, Boeing won the bid in a surprise upset.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the launch pad. According to a 2007 New York Times investigation, Boeing's proposal was too ambitious and severely underfunded from day one. As one former CIA official said in the article, "Writing winning proposals is different from building winning hardware." Boeing's role in the optical portion of FIA was revoked in 2005. Estimates on the cost of the failed project reached $18 billion.

So, are these two NRO 'scopes relics from the FIA debacle? While possible, two pieces of evidence suggest they came from the Keyhole program. The first indication comes from the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics presentations: the telescopes have actuated, or movable, secondary mirrors. That's an alleged feature of some of the Keyhole satellites; the mirrors could be moved to provide a variety of focal options.

Secondly, NRO spokesperson Loretta DeSio confirmed to the Washington Post that the NRO telescopes are very Hubble-esque. That description matches the rumored design of earlier Keyhole satellites. According to a book by Andrew J. Dunar and Stephen P. Waring called The Power to Explore, early proposals for the Hubble suggested a 3-meter diameter mirror until it was realized the shuttle's payload bay could not accommodate a telescope of that size. Chapter twelve (available from MSFC as a PDF) says a mirror size of 2.4 meters was eventually chosen because it would be the same size as comparable spy satellites, thus saving on production costs. The NRO telescopes given to NASA indeed have 2.4-meter mirrors.

So, if these are Keyhole telescopes, why aren't they in space? The NRO also revealed to the Washington Post that the telescopes were manufactured in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Space Review's aforementioned article indicates the last Block III Keyhole, USA-129, was launched on December 20, 1996. The NRO sought their FIA proposals in 1998, and the next Keyhole -- a new Block IV version -- didn't fly until 2001. This implies that these *might* be Block III Keyholes that weren't needed when the Block IV series started flying around the time of the FIA fiasco.

Or, they could indeed be FIA leftovers. Or neither. The exact circumstances in which the NRO came to have two surplus, partially-constructed space telescopes while NASA continued to struggle for science funding may forever remain a mystery.

What's under the hood?

Now that we know (or don't know) where they came from, let's take a look at the NRO telescopes. As mentioned before, they have 2.4-meter mirrors, just like the HST. Where they differ from Hubble, however, is their focal lengths. Hubble has a focal length of 57.6 meters, giving it a focal ratio of f/24. The NRO 'scopes have focal lengths of 19.2 meters, giving them focal ratios of f/8. Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, called them "stubby Hubbles."

The shorter focal length gives the NRO telescopes a much wider field of view. Alan Dressler's CAA presentation gives some theoretical numbers if the telescopes were used as-is and outfitted with sixteen Hawaii-4RG detectors from Teledyne. He compares the result with the infrared channel on Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera (WFC3). I took some of Dressler's numbers and lined them up with an excerpt from a Hubble instrument chart by Emily Lakdawalla to come up with the resulting table:

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NASA moves forward with mission using spy satellite telescope
18 Feb 2019


NASA has formally approved plans — a year ahead of schedule — for an infrared space telescope launching around 2024 to record unique wide-angle views of the cosmos, seeking answers to questions about mysterious dark energy and searching for habitable worlds around other stars, the space agency announced Thursday.

The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is projected to cost approximately $2.3 billion and should operate for at least six years. Its observing post is baselined to be at the L2 Lagrange point, a gravitationally neutral location nearly a million miles from Earth in the direction away from the sun.

WFIRST’s centerpiece is a 7.9-foot (2.4-meter) telescope originally built to allow U.S. intelligence officials to spy on adversaries. Instead of turning the powerful telescope toward Earth for a clandestine surveillance mission, NASA plans to repurpose the hardware for cosmic research.

WFIRST Mission