Author Topic: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s  (Read 18187 times)

Offline Blackstar

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Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« on: 05/16/2016 10:37 PM »
http://thespacereview.com/article/2985/1

Thatíll do, DONKEY, thatíll do

by Dwayne Day
Monday, May 16, 2016


When the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program started in late 1963, it was going to be an incredibly complex machine: both a human space station and a collection of military experiments and equipment for performing an operational intelligence collection mission. The centerpiece of MOL was going to be a large optics system for conducting photoreconnaissance, code-named DORIAN. But MOL would also operate other intelligence equipment, including a signals intelligence system. Over the next several years, as MOL moved from concepts and studies to becoming blueprints and designs, its managers began to realize how complicated it was and sought to simplify and streamline the spacecraft. In 1965, they decided to eliminate a communications intelligence collection payload called DONKEY. But although the mule might have taken a kick, it didnít roll over. DONKEY still found a way to fly, the only MOL system that did.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #1 on: 05/16/2016 10:38 PM »
I'll be writing more articles on American sigint satellites in the next few months. More on the Agena ferrets, AFTRACK, as well as the P-11 subsats.

Online edkyle99

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #2 on: 05/16/2016 11:59 PM »
Interesting that that extra fairing part extended down past the regular payload shroud to the side of a portion of Agena itself.  It seems to have extended over the Agena forward section, which housed guidance and other equipment.  Perhaps DONKEY had systems mounted in the equipment racks available in that area.

 - Ed Kyle

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #3 on: 05/17/2016 12:13 AM »
I suspect that it may also have had to do with clearance issues--they mounted it on the side in order to fold out the dish far enough. I need to get a photo of the actual payload without fairing, but this thing was packed with antennas--four that folded out, plus probably up to four others on the front.

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #4 on: 05/17/2016 01:17 AM »
Good read. Sounds like an ideal system to boost to a molniya orbit.
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Offline Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #5 on: 05/17/2016 01:47 AM »
Good read. Sounds like an ideal system to boost to a molniya orbit.

I think this ended up as part of the CANYON mission. If I remember correctly, CANYON had a slightly inclined orbit that allowed it to slowly move in and out of the line of sight of microwave transmitters and suck up their signals.

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #6 on: 05/17/2016 03:42 AM »
If it was working off the side lobes, it might have needed to change geometry a little to pick up different microwave relays. While they radiate out the side lobes, there are null locations that radiate nothing. No one position would have been perfect for every tower.
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Offline Star One

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #7 on: 05/17/2016 08:31 AM »
Good read. Sounds like an ideal system to boost to a molniya orbit.

I think this ended up as part of the CANYON mission. If I remember correctly, CANYON had a slightly inclined orbit that allowed it to slowly move in and out of the line of sight of microwave transmitters and suck up their signals.

Curious that the name CANYON is still classified long after optical reconnaissance payloads that are far newer have been fully declassified.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #8 on: 05/17/2016 09:55 AM »
Good read. Sounds like an ideal system to boost to a molniya orbit.

I think this ended up as part of the CANYON mission. If I remember correctly, CANYON had a slightly inclined orbit that allowed it to slowly move in and out of the line of sight of microwave transmitters and suck up their signals.

Curious that the name CANYON is still classified long after optical reconnaissance payloads that are far newer have been fully declassified.

Not really if you consider their policy. They have treated the sigint stuff more seriously than the photo stuff. For instance, they declassified Corona in 1995 and GRAB in 1998, but even after declassifying GRAB, they only released minimal information on it. They have treated high altitude sigint as more sensitive than low altitude sigint.

And for all of this stuff their general rule of thumb seems to be that they won't even consider declassifying a program until at least 25 years after the program ceased producing data. The last CANYON as launched in 1977. If it operated for 10 years they would not even have started considering declassifying it until 2013.

Offline Star One

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #9 on: 05/17/2016 01:28 PM »
Good read. Sounds like an ideal system to boost to a molniya orbit.

I think this ended up as part of the CANYON mission. If I remember correctly, CANYON had a slightly inclined orbit that allowed it to slowly move in and out of the line of sight of microwave transmitters and suck up their signals.

Curious that the name CANYON is still classified long after optical reconnaissance payloads that are far newer have been fully declassified.

Not really if you consider their policy. They have treated the sigint stuff more seriously than the photo stuff. For instance, they declassified Corona in 1995 and GRAB in 1998, but even after declassifying GRAB, they only released minimal information on it. They have treated high altitude sigint as more sensitive than low altitude sigint.

And for all of this stuff their general rule of thumb seems to be that they won't even consider declassifying a program until at least 25 years after the program ceased producing data. The last CANYON as launched in 1977. If it operated for 10 years they would not even have started considering declassifying it until 2013.

Very interesting. I've seen you quote that 25 year rule before, but there does seem to be some flexibility in it as little bits and pieces have started appearing about the KH-11 in recent years and that's still in use.

I honestly thought by now we might have heard a bit about the first generation NOSS satellites and the earlier LACROSSE. I wonder where radar reconnaissance falls in the general scheme of things on classification as like optical reconnaissance you do see civilian equivalents with radar earth resources satellites.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #10 on: 05/17/2016 01:42 PM »
I wonder where radar reconnaissance falls in the general scheme of things on classification as like optical reconnaissance you do see civilian equivalents with radar earth resources satellites.

Look at QUILL--flown once in 1964, but they did not declassify it until 2014.


Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #11 on: 05/17/2016 02:24 PM »
I would argue that understanding what optical satellites do is pretty straight forward. SIGINT is not, and the reason they are dragging feet as much as possible is telling how they work lets people understand and counter it. You kind of know if something can or can not be seen from space and if you should or could hide it ... but if you don't know something is emitting critical data, you can not mask it.

For instance in the case of DONKEY, you have to be pretty sophisticated to understand a Rose plot and realize that a point to point antenna like that is actually exploitable from space.
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Offline Star One

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #12 on: 05/17/2016 05:06 PM »
I would argue that understanding what optical satellites do is pretty straight forward. SIGINT is not, and the reason they are dragging feet as much as possible is telling how they work lets people understand and counter it. You kind of know if something can or can not be seen from space and if you should or could hide it ... but if you don't know something is emitting critical data, you can not mask it.

For instance in the case of DONKEY, you have to be pretty sophisticated to understand a Rose plot and realize that a point to point antenna like that is actually exploitable from space.

Would you say your explanation is also applicable to radar reconnaissance as well?

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #13 on: 05/17/2016 06:32 PM »
Would you say your explanation is also applicable to radar reconnaissance as well?
Who knows. RADAR comes in so many forms.

Remember one of the arguments against QUILL was you where no longer passively attempting to acquire information. Pointing a RADAR beam at someone can be construed as an aggressive act. It also tells someone on the ground that you are interested in them. Passive systems, like optical and SIGINT do not give themselves away like that. You have to assume if the satellite is in the sky, it is looking at you. 

Here is a fun one, old analog systems swept a beam across the target (unless they locked on to it) at regular intervals. The AESA beam can be randomly pointed at different locations in it's field of view at any point in time. That means instead of getting a repeating blip at a set interval you can query an object of interest at random intervals with just enough power to return the information you desire while steering the beam away from areas that you do not want it to query. AKA a stealthy sweep, that may not be picked up, or just ignored as spurious noise... It was one of the things talked about in some of the av week articles on the "RQ-180", what ever that really is.
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Offline Star One

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Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #14 on: 05/17/2016 08:06 PM »
Would you say your explanation is also applicable to radar reconnaissance as well?
Who knows. RADAR comes in so many forms.

Remember one of the arguments against QUILL was you where no longer passively attempting to acquire information. Pointing a RADAR beam at someone can be construed as an aggressive act. It also tells someone on the ground that you are interested in them. Passive systems, like optical and SIGINT do not give themselves away like that. You have to assume if the satellite is in the sky, it is looking at you. 

Here is a fun one, old analog systems swept a beam across the target (unless they locked on to it) at regular intervals. The AESA beam can be randomly pointed at different locations in it's field of view at any point in time. That means instead of getting a repeating blip at a set interval you can query an object of interest at random intervals with just enough power to return the information you desire while steering the beam away from areas that you do not want it to query. AKA a stealthy sweep, that may not be picked up, or just ignored as spurious noise... It was one of the things talked about in some of the av week articles on the "RQ-180", what ever that really is.

That's interesting.

Did you also see the speculation about LACROSSE 5 when that bizarre business (I say this because it's not generally the done thing to publish photos of each other's spy satellites) of a Russian observatory having pictures of them that appeared online and it turned out it had a different shaped main antenna compared to the others in the series?
« Last Edit: 05/17/2016 08:09 PM by Star One »

Online gosnold

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #15 on: 05/17/2016 08:14 PM »
What was so special about the antenna shape?

Offline Star One

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #16 on: 05/17/2016 08:25 PM »
What was so special about the antenna shape?

The others were round it wasn't.

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #17 on: 05/17/2016 08:26 PM »
Earlier versions where a round dish, the newer model was a flat rectangular plate. AKA some sort of phased array antennae.

Edit: Source; http://aero.tamu.edu/sites/default/files/images/Alfriend/S4%203%20Aleshin.pdf
« Last Edit: 05/17/2016 08:31 PM by kevin-rf »
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Offline Star One

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #18 on: 05/17/2016 08:28 PM »
Earlier versions where a round dish, the newer model was a flat rectangular plate. AKA some sort of phased array antennae.

I wonder if that accounts for its so called disappearing trick that satellite observers have noticed over the years.

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1960s
« Reply #19 on: 05/17/2016 08:32 PM »
I wonder if that accounts for its so called disappearing trick that satellite observers have noticed over the years.
Nah, must be aliens ;)
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