Space: May 18, 2005

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NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are engaging in very overt cooperation these days. The two agencies are working together to put a small synthetic aperture radar sensor onto a lunar probe to be launched in 2008, and are also exchanging information to put some very big mirrors in space. 

NASA has considerable expertise with in-orbit radars and NRO is tapping into it to shrink the size of their radars for future spy satellites. NRO hopes to take the radar technology developed for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbitor and put it on a small earth-orbiting satellite for a workout. 

In addition, NASA is developing a large lightweight mirror for use in the replacement to the Hubble Space Telescope. Scheduled for launch in 2011, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be put into orbit with a 6.5 meter primary mirror made up of 18 hexagonal plates. The new mirror will be 2.5 times the diameter and roughly half the weigh or less than the Hubble Telescope. JWST will be used to for research into the origins of the Universe, but NRO simply wants a bigger mirror for higher-orbiting imaging satellites parked in geosynchronous orbit. Current recon satellites orbit the earth at distances between 320 to 800 kilometers on predictable orbits, so an educated foe knows when spy satellites are overhead and can take measures to hide their activities. 

Looking down from 36,000 kilometers, a geo-sync imaging satellite would be able to continuously watch any spot on earth, making efforts to hide from it more difficult (but not impossible; bad weather would still obscure activities). It would also be much less vulnerable to attack by anti-satellite weapons, since any adversary would have to boost an energy or missile attack up to the higher altitude. 

NRO and NASA have had a good, but very discreet working relationship. When requested, NRO has provided support to NASA throughout the Space Shuttle program, photographing the bottom of orbiting shuttles with an imaging satellite on at least two occasions to look for missing thermal tiles. NRO has also used the in-orbit imaging capability to look at Russian, Chinese, and U.S. satellites, in the latter case for troubleshooting when something went wrong. Lower-orbiting NRO satellites use NASA's geo-sync network of orbiting TDRS communications satellites to relay data in real-time back to ground stations. Doug Mohney

 


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