Kept under wraps at a storage unit in Rochester, New York, are two military spy telescopes so advanced that NASA is studying the hardware.The telescopes came from the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office), a hybrid intelligence agency staffed by members of the military, the CIA and civilian personnel from the defence Department.
Fulfilling its vision of “Vigilance from above”, the agency works on innovative overhead intelligence systems for national security. It’s the military spy agency looking down on the world that not many people are aware of.
Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post was the first to report the NRO had given the two “exquisite” flight-qualified telescopes — which it didn’t need anymore — to NASA just over a week ago:
The telescopes have 2.4-meter (7.9-foot) mirrors, just like the Hubble, but they have 100 times the field of view. Their structure is shorter and squatter.
They’re “space qualified,” as NASA puts it, but they’re a long way from being functioning space telescopes. They have no instruments — there are no cameras, for example. More than that, they lack a funded mission and all that entails, such as a scientific program, support staff, data analysis and office space. They will remain in storage while NASA mulls its options.
“It’s great news,” said NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz. “It’s real hardware, and it’s got really impressive capabilities.”
Achenbach reported the telescopes had never left the ground, which prompted a number of questions about the mysterious NRO hardware.
The Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) Office at NASA headquarters just released the Q&A sheet that the space agency’s own PR staff referred to when the story became news.
USA Today obtained a copy, which provided the following details:
- The hardware includes mirrors and structures made by the defence contractor Exelis of ITT.
- NASA says the estimated cost of obtaining such hardware is approximately $275 million. In their present condition, the book value of the telescopes is around $75 million each.
- NASA only found out about the powerful telescopes, which were built in the late 1990s, after the NRO approached the space agency recently.
- The NRO determined that the equipment does not meet its future intelligence missions, so it passed the hardware on to NASA.
But any information about the NRO program that produced the once-secret telescopes was denied, with NASA staffers referring to the stock answer: “Due to classification or policy guidance, we cannot discuss the program office or directorate that produced the hardware.”
Even though the technology is over 20 years old, it’s the most advanced known. Because the NRO deemed it acceptable to reveal the existence of the two telescopes, the suggestion is that the agency could have moved on in another direction with newer, secret technology. Who knows what other impressive hardware has since been developed under wraps.
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