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The Coldest Warriors

Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.

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Thanks to dramatic advances in miniaturization, the imaging satellites themselves will become smaller, which will make them cheaper to build and to launch. The laws of physics will remain immutable: No high-resolution close-look telescope is going to fly in a package the size of a wastebasket. And since imaging satellites last only as long as their maneuvering fuel, it seems certain that new ways of changing their orbits, including the use of tiny ion thrusters, are under study.

It also seems certain that satellites are going to have upgraded infrared capability, high-definition radar for night and all-weather imaging, and the ability to stare at one spot. A telescope staring at a place on Earth from 22,300 miles out would have far better resolution than one on Earth looking 22,300 miles in the opposite direction. That’s because of the “bottom of the ocean effect”: There is far more distortion looking up at the world from the bottom of a swimming pool than there is looking at the bottom of the pool from a diving board. Staring at one place for days or weeks is not farfetched. A Hubble Space Telescope-sized optical system, looking down instead of out, should be able to do the job. The Hubble uses the same basic optics as its NRO cousins, Hexagon (or “Big Bird”—the KH-9) and Crystal, the old KH-11. All three satellites were sired by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. Perhaps the most telling sign that things have changed was the surprising award in early September of the FIA contract to Boeing, thereby ending a relationship with Lockheed that dated back to 1958. One reason cited for switching to Boeing was the need to contain costs. And civilian satellites with three-foot resolution offer the promise of round-the-clock satellite service to all potential users—like a kind of public utility. The NRO, for one, will never be the same.

 

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