Popular Science, Popular Mechanics articles

Allen Thomson (thomsona@netcom.com)
Mon, 15 Jan 1996 11:48:16 -0800

   I just posted this note to some of the Usenet groups, and thought
it might be interesting to seesat folk, as you're indirectly mentioned.


   The February 1996 issues of Popular Science and Popular 
Mechanics have American spysats as their cover stories. 
PopMech's article is written by cyberspace's own Philip Chien 
and PopSci's by Stuart Brown.  Both are quite good, though 
Chien's is a little closer to my own interests. 

   Brown's article concentrates more on CORONA, reviewing the 
material released last year at the GWU symposium last spring -- 
I'd guess he was there, based on the detail contained in the 
article.  He concludes with a good commentary by John Pike on 
how spysats probably kept us and the Soviets from nuking each 
other by decreasing the extreme levels of ignorance-based 
suspicion which characterized the 1950s.  It would be 
interesting to study the extent to which this was an "unintended 
side effect;" certainly in the US, and I'd imagine in the USSR, 
reconnaissance satellites had SIOP targeting/planning as one of 
their major missions. 

   Chien covers the CORONA history also and then goes on to 
give a quick overview of the present and possibilities for the 
future.  In one respect he's a little inconsistent (I think) 
when he says that current spysats' resolutions might be as good 
as 2 inches but also states that they could read a license plate 
placed flat on the ground.  OTOH, he notes that the amateur 
observer community has demonstrated that finding and tracking 
spysats isn't very hard, and that effective ASAT systems can be 
derived from SCUD-level technology.  As those are theses I've 
been advocating the US should pay more attention to, I was 
pleased to see the words. 

   As an aside, I was recently talking with a professional 
astronomer/amateur satellite watcher about building a space 
surveillance system on the cheap.  He'd done some preliminary 
design studies on an optical system, and thought that 
commercially available equipment could be used to detect and 
track satellites down to visual magnitude 15.  That would be good 
enough to see even quite small debris objects in LEO, or small-
to-medium sized satellites in GEO.

   Something that P.C. suggested which I hadn't thought of is 
that the Air Force's amusingly acronymed MSTI satellite, 
ostensibly an SDIO/BMDO targeting sensor testbed, might be 
trying out technologies that could be used on smallspysats.
I'd like to believe that, but it would be nice to get some 
substantiation.  If anyone has more (unclassified, of course) 
technical details on the MSTI sensors, please post them here.