It’s been a rough year for NASA’s science program, with a major pullback in its Mars exploration program and continuing threats to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA was worried about the budget of the James Webb Space Telescope which is supposed to take the place of Hubble Space Telescope. The agency also has plans for a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which is supposed to be used for searching extra-solar planets and study “dark energy”. But the agency’s tight budget was pulling it backward’s in realizing the goals. Seems they now have an occasion to pop champagne bottles (that NASA claim they never do because of tight budgets). The civilian space agency has got not one but two gifts from the U.S. space intelligence agency the National Reconnaissance Office – two former spy telescopes more powerful than the Hubble telescope.
The National Reconnaissance Office is the U.S. Government agency which is in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence telescopes. The military had two spy telescopes stored in a warehouse in New York that never made their flight to the space. The telescopes are similar to Hubble telescope, only they use a different optical technology that has 100 times the field of view compared to the civilian telescope. The specialty of the spy telescopes is that they have maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more-focused images.
According to an analyst, the gifted spy telescopes may be versions of the KH-11 Kennan satellites that the agency has been sending to the space from 1976. The analysts also noted that the US intelligence agencies have moved their focus to spy telescopes with broader field of view, a feature absent in older models.
If the analyst is correct, then we might have a hint why the intelligence agency suddenly decided to declassify the telescopes, gave them to the civilian space agency. But, this also leave us wondering, what kind of equipment the military is using now for surveillance then?
If the readers still are in blank on what am I talking about, then let me explain a bit more. According to NASA official Michael Moore if the Hubble telescope was focused toward the earth then “you could see a dime sitting on top of the Washington Monument.” The NRO telescopes have a field of view that is 100 times larger than the Hubble. I guess, you can do the math.
The security agency has maintained high level of secrecy about the donated satellites. For example, neither of the agencies involved has published any images of the satellites.
After receiving the gift got from NRO the much known NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz was very much satisfied as the telescopes had real hardware and had got really impressive capabilities. NASA, however, has to install some new components to the systems for them to be workable.
But, the question is how much help these two satellites would be for the struggling space agency? According to NASA sources, the agency doesn’t have enough funds to put the telescopes in the space. The earliest possible time for the launch of the first of the two could be 2024. As for the other one, the future is still not clear.