Wizards of Langley
Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology
Richelson (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002)
space reconnaissance systems were the primary means of collecting
intelligence on Iraq and Kuwait, particularly in the period before
military action began. Of particular importance were the imagery
satellites the United States had in operation. Three KH-11s were
in orbit, although the oldest, launched in 1984, had limited capability.
addition, there was a satellite, known by the numerical designation
3101 and the code name ONYX, that had been launched in December
1988. Earlier, it (or the program to produce it) had been known
as LACROSSE; and before that INDIGO. It was the program that nine
years earlier the OD&E had tried to kill by offering to put
a radar imagery capability on future versions of the KH-11. Rather
than passively depending on reflected visible light or heat to produce
imagery, ONYX, as QUILL had three decades earlier, relied on the
active radio pulses it generated and then received back from its
target. Unlike QUILL, its imagery was not stored in a capsule but
transmitted to a relay satellite and then back to the United States.
Although the resulting imagery was not in the same class as that
of the KH-11, with a resolution of three to five feet, ONYX did
have two major advantages. The KH-11 could not produce imagery in
the presence of significant cloud cover, which prevented light or
heat from reaching the spacecraft sensors, but ONYX could. And whereas
the KH-11's visible light sensors were of little value during darkness,
radar imagery systems worked well at night.
had been developed and built by Martin Marietta under the supervision
of the Air Force Office of Special Projects, but there was another
imagery satellite in orbit--and that was an OD&E product. When
first launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on March 1, 1990,
it was believed to be the first advanced KH-11 spacecraft (the first
of which would be launched in 1992). Within weeks, both U.S. and
Soviet sources reported it had malfunctioned and would make a "fiery
reentry . . . in the next 30 days."
assessments were wrong. The payload was a stealth imaging satellite
code-named MISTY, which had been developed under the supervision
of the DS&T's development and engineering office.
was one of at least two satellites developed in exceptional secrecy
subsequent to the 1983 Reagan administration decision to establish
a stealth satellite program. (Note) The idea
for MISTY came from OD&E engineers, some of whom had been enamored
of the idea of a stealth satellite since the 1970s--having rediscovered
the concept first suggested in the 1960s. The objective was to reduce
the threat to U.S. satellites from the Soviet Union--whose antisatellite
program was of significant concern during the early 1980s.
help define that threat, OD&E turned to the Directorate of Intelligence's
Office of Scientific and Weapons Research (OSWR)--the office formed
in 1980 by the merger of the scientific and weapons intelligence
offices that had been transferred to the intelligence directorate
in 1976. A Threat Assessment Branch (later Center) in the OSWR Space
Systems Division was established and produced an analysis that supported
the idea that MISTY could be successful--it argued that Soviet radars
and cameras were not very capable and were unlikely to track the
satellite. But because the program was so highly compartmented,
OD&E did not consult several agencies that had experience in
satellite tracking--including the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL),
whose engineers might have provided a different assessment about
MISTY'S vulnerability to detection.
to possible U.S. government interest in stealth satellites was supplied
just weeks after MISTY'S launch. To the anger of many in the NRO,
a patent application was filed, apparently by the SDIO, for a "Satellite
Signature Suppression Shield." The application described an
inflatable shield that could protect satellites from detection by
radar, laser, infrared, and optical systems.
despite MISTY'S intended stealthiness, when the shuttle placed it
into orbit, four civilian space observers--Russell Eberst, Daniel
Karcher, and Pierre Neirinck in Europe and Ted Molczan in Canada--were
able to determine that the satellite was in a 494-by-503-mile, 65-degree
orbit, an orbit that did not match any other U.S. military spacecraft.
In addition, the civilian observers were able to monitor a series
of maneuvers performed by the satellite--including the "explosion"
that may have been a tactic to deceive those monitoring the satellite
or may have been the result of the jettisoning of operational debris.
satellite did finally disappear around November 1990. In 2000, one
space observer, examining orbital data from the North American Defense
Command, came to the conclusion that in May 1995, the satellite
was in a 451-by-461-mile orbit. Where the satellite is today is
unclear, as is how much additional intelligence MISTY has yielded.
The program was so secret that there was a special compartment,
designated ZIRCONIC, established within the already highly secret
BYEMAN Control System to designate information relating to stealth
satellites. Within ZIRCONIC, yet another term, NEBULA, designated
stealth satellite technology.