The CIA Declassifies Documents Outlining Incredible Deep-Sea Recovery of Spy Satellite Capsule

It was July 10, 1971 and we were in the heart of the cold war. The U.S. was running a super secret satellite spying operation code-named Hexagon. This was long before the days of digital cameras and Google earth. Spy photos were stored on Kodak film and when the time came for them to be sent back to earth, they were jettisoned from the satellite via a capsule called a Hexagon recovery vehicle. Unfortunately, on this particular day things went very wrong. The parachute carrying the RV didn’t deploy correctly and literally tore off at the swivel. The RV hit the surface of the ocean at 2600 g’s and sank in 16,000 feet of water. This is just a piece of a riveting story that can be found in newly declassified CIA documents. What follows is a story of a rescue mission that reaches record depths and is mingled with excitement and disappointment.

According to the CIA “Memorandum for the Record“, it was decided to bring in the Navy for a recovery attempt. This was no easy task. There were several challenges outlined in the memorandum:

a. The ability to locate the impact area accurately.
b. The amount of damage caused by the impact and the corrosive
effects from sea water.
c. No object of this size had been actively searched for and
located by sonar.
d. The Trieste II had not gone below 10,000 feet.

Three recovery attempts were made. The first failed attempt was November 3, 1971. The second failed attempt was November 30, 1971. The third attempt was a little more successful. On April 25, 1972, the Trieste II successfully found and grasped the RV capsule. Unfortunately, due to the pressure changes while rising to the surface, the film basically shredded and they were only able to recover a remnant. The end result was not ideal but the CIA remained pretty optimistic despite the circumstance. It appears what the Navy was able to accomplish in the midst of much turmoil proved to be an encouraging turn of events. The memorandum ends with the following.

In summary, the significance of the objective of recovering the film for intelligence use was considerably reduced after the 1202 mission,
and the motivating force became the demonstration of the capability to effect a deep sea recovery. This was successfully accomplished with the
recovery of the two film stacks on the third dive. All of the men involved remained enthusiastic and determined throughout the many frustrations and
are to be commended for their fine efforts.

Below, I have included a photo gallery with some of the amazing underwater photos from the recovery effort.


Galileo Satellites: Europe To Launch Answer to US’s GPS Facility on Friday Via Soyuz Launch Vehicle

Europe is all set to launch the Galileo satellites its answer to the US GPS and Russian GLONASS on Friday, 21st October. The launch was supposed to have taken place early today (i.e. on 20th October), but unforeseen situations forced the launch to be shifted the next day. The satellites, a joint venture between European Space Agency and Roscosmos, will be launched using the Russian Soyuz rockets, marking the first use of Soyuz to launch a non-Russian payload.

Galileo placed on dispenser (Courtesy: ESA)

Self-Reliance is the Keyword

The Galileo system will free up the European nations from their reliance on American technology for a reliable tracking system. The US GPS is available to all, but it can be discontinued or restricted in times of war. If not completely barred, the precision of the service might also be curtailed by the US. The US GPS is ultimately controlled mainly by the US military, which holds very high priority in the policy making corridors of America. Galileo will free Europe of all such constraints.

Galileo will provide both high precision and low precision services. The low precision facilities will be open to all. The high-precision facilities will be used primarily by the military.

Galileo on the Soyuz Composite (Courtesy: ESA)

Features of Galileo

Navigational and Search-And-Rescue facilities

The Galileo system has some really great features, as compared to the US GPS and the Russian GLONASS. It will be an array of 30 satellites (27 active ones and 3 spares) all in an orbit about 23,000 km above the Earth’s surface. The navigational precision of Galileo is rumored to be better than the US GPS, though the exact numbers are not yet known. Galileo will also be able to do Search-And-Rescue (SAR) operations. Users can send distress calls along with their positions via the Galileo system to emergency agencies. Galileo has the additional facility of user feedback it will tell the user whether the rescue team has been deployed or not and what their location might be.

Time measurement facility

Galileo will fly up with four high precision atomic clocks of two types. The first type is a hydrogen based maser clock, which is accurate to 0.45 ns in 12 hours (i.e. it slows down by 0.45 nanoseconds in 12 hours!!). the clock uses the super-stable 1.4 GHz hydrogen atom transition line to measure time. The second type of clocks – Rubidium clocks – serves as back-up. The Rubidium clock is accurate to within 1.8 ns over 12 hours. Ultra-precise time measurement is one of the fundamental necessities of a proper positional and navigational system.

Galileo on Soyuz Composite - another angle (Courtesy: ESA)

Friction with Big Brother: Did the US plan to shoot Galileo down?

The US apparently planned to even shoot the Galileo satellites using missiles, since it feared that the facility might be used for military purposes against it. Tempers have cooled down and, with ESA declaring that the satellites won’t be used for spying, the US has no problem with the launch of the Galileo systems.

Named after the first real scientist, Galileo Galilee, the satellites aim to do what the great man always wanted to teach self-reliance in the matter of knowledge and thought.

All images courtesy the ESA image gallery:

NASA Spacecraft Catches A Huge Solar Flare; Increased Sunspot Activity Leads to Awesome Auroras

The Sun’s roaring again and it’s usually bad news when that happens. An active sunspot, Sunspot 1302, has suddenly grown vigorous and is releasing vast amounts of highly energetic charged particles hurtling out of the Sun. It released a huge solar flare on the 24th of September and its hyperactivity continues unabated over the last few days. The activity was caught by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO.

Coronal Mass Ejection and a brilliant lightshow

NASA warned that a huge Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) or a Solar Flare is in progress. The CME occurred at about 8:15 AM EST, today i.e. on the 26th of September. Upon reaching Earth this will cause a huge geomagnetic storm, interfering with radio communications everywhere. This will also produce scintillating auroras near the poles of the Earth. If you stay in the higher altitudes, remember to look up in the sky the light show is due to the Sun.

This is Big!

Scientists use a Kp-index to indicate the enormity of the Solar flare. It is a scale from 0 to 9, 0 indicating no activity and 9 indicating hyperactivity. It tells us whether there will be a significant geomagnetic storm caused due to Solar activity, with any reading above Kp=4 denoting a geomagnetic storm. The 26th September solar flare was marked Kp=8! The solar flare was so huge that it could be heard on all radios across the world. Here’s a video from NASA.

The solar flare was marked as a X1.9 category flare, indicating that it had some X-ray components to it. However, this is much lower than the X6.9 solar flare on 9th August or even the X2.2 flare on 15th February this year.

The increased activity of the Sun is related to the peak in the Solar Cycle. The Peak is expected in Early or mid-2013 and this is all leading up to that.

A thing of awe is a source of beauty forever.

Juno, the Jupiter Satellite, Looks Back And Snaps A Photo Of The Earth-Moon System

It is the Pale Blue Dot redux. Juno, the Jupiter satellite, looked back at the Earth Moon system and snapped a photo! Here it is!

The photo Juno snapped of the Earth-Moon system. The larger dot is the Earth. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Juno was sent to Jupiter to probe the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which is still a big mystery. It’s been a month into its journey, which is supposed to last for five long years.

NASA has pinned a lot of hopes on this satellite probe. Jupiter is still largely unknown. We covered the Juno story here.

The Pale Blue Dot

The lyrical prose by the late Carl Sagan rushes back to haunt us! In 1991, at Sagan’s request, Voyager turned its camera back to photograph the inner planets. It was beyond Neptune’s orbit and was about to leave the Solar System. It captured one blue pixel, which was the earth. The picture was immortalised as the Pale Blue Dot’. The following paragraph by Carl Sagan is as close prose can come to poetry.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there   on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Sagan taught us how to look at these photos. It’s an exercise in humility!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech