It happens once in a while. A regular Science Times writer - in this case Dennis Overbye - has a dramatic science story, it runs on Tuesday, and it lands on the front page of the whole paper somewhat overshadowing the science section. It is a terrific story, too, about a stroke of lucidity within the US space spook-realm - specifically the National Reconnaissance Office. It led to an invitation to regular civilian astronomers to come look at some surplus equipment they might like to take off the NRO's hands. Overbye gets the juices going when describing the moment when these stargazers walked into a secure highbay in upstate New York earlier this year. Before them were a pair of gigantic never-launched telescopes with Hubble-class optics but a wider field of view. They are no longer needed for looking down at the Earth to read license plates (as the movies have it, but that's a myth) from space and count tanks and missile silos and stuff like that.
It's a scoop too. At least, Overbye tells tracker readers that he'd never seen anything published on this already. I was too dumb to ask how he got his tip, but he does say there were no pictures of these that he could provide and that even at NASA few people have so much as laid eyes on them.
*UPDATE: As comments show and as further reflection suggests, I was hasty in calling a report from a public meeting with several reporters in on the news a scoop. Maybe Dennis O.was first out of the gate - he told me it was held a day - but priority in this case is not so clear. Joel Achenbach also was out early Monday. My bad - Overbye's story's heavy history and background indicate it was in the works for awhile and I just assumed (awfull thing, that) it was an original feature. I asked Overbye if anybody had this earlier - didn't have the wit to ask if anybody else has it right now. Here are some of them....
- USA Today - Dan Vergano: NASA receives two 'Hubble-class' space telescopes;
- SpaceNews - Dan Leone: Donated Spy Satellites Could Enable Cheaper Dark Energy Mapper Mission - If NASA had the Money ;
- ScienceNow - Yudhijit Bhattacharjee: Spy Telescopes Could Advance US Dark Energy Mission ;
- MSNBC - Cosmic Log - Alan Boyle: Spy agency's gift could save NASA big bucks on super-Hubbble Mission ;
- Washington Post - Joel Achenbach: NASA gets two military spy telescopes for astronomy, plus his blog: Spy agency gives NASA two spare hubbles ; Looks like Joel and Dennis at the NYT are in a tie for first out.
I do want to read more, lots more. Such as are these eyes in the sky the same (except for the secret cameras) models that have seen space duty ? If they were to have flown up on Titan IV's or other biggies, do we still have boosters that can do it? If we don't, is this another job for the current superhero of US industry, Elon Musk, and his happy SpaceX rocketeers plotting out the future Falcon Heavy. Are these examples of the famed semi-secret Keyhole satellites and if so, how many generations old? Surely somebody at Jane's All the World's Spy Birds or whatever they call it know whether some similar ones are still up there, checking out your backyard BBQ between inspections of blast-doors on Iranian tunnels. Who was prime contractor that until now could hardly take a public bow - Boeing? Lockheed?
Second, the story could have used some historical perspective, which likely is not there for reasons of news hole space. I can think of at least two similar episodes in recent decades. One is the now-routine use of adaptive optics in astronomy to take the twinkle and blurring out of stars when viewed through Earth's turbulent atmosphere. It got a huge boost about 20 years ago when the Air Force declassified its work, dating to the 70s, on the method. For a terrific oral history on that including its roots in trying to defuzz powerful laser beam weapons and then in spying on Soviet satellites from the ground, see this AIP interview with Robert Q. Fugate. A second is the Navy's and the Clinton administration's work in the 1990s to open much of the military's submarine oceanography archive, especially from the Arctic, its series of science submarine cruises under the ice with civilian researchers, and the clearance given civilians to use submarine cables left over from Cold War hydrophone listening systems.
A lot of us who have covered space astronomy have heard NASA and university researchers grumble that while they lift mountains to get one Hubble-class scope launched once or twice a decade, the agencies on the dark side, the place with no line-item public budgets, are loaded with equally good or better equipment to look down on us. By comparison to NASA's scrimping, these things are or were in mass production. This story advances the ball enormously. A lot of devoted optical scientists and engineers may now finally get open-air credit for their achievements.
Other Science Times headlines to note:
- Sindya N. Bhanoo: A Unique Slice-and-Dice Strategy for Chewing ; Great example of the well-composed brief. Fascinating. Ms. Bhanoo may however be getting persnickety emails. Everything I've read on these singular creatures, Tuataras, indicates that despite appearances they are not lizards but members of a distinct, separate reptile lineage.
- Henry Fountain: Wood That Reaches New Heights ; Unsure where the new science is here, but it is technology-rich and will be a surprise to many that over-muscled plywood is finding a new use in high rise buildings: as the primary beams and shear walls. One bets remodeling these structures is hard - it'd be tough to knock out a wall that is inches thick, of heavy laminated wood.
- Dennis Overbye: Mystery of Big Data's Parallel Universe Brings Fear, and a Thrill ; On the ecology of the information that floods by the terabyte into the world's data banks. It even has Hari Seldon in it, but not the mule. Good blend of tech and social impact - why no mention of Person of Interest, the paranoia-rich noire TV series on CBS?
- James Gorman: In Analysis of Skulls, Following the Path From T. Rex to Falcon ;
- Jay S. Pasachoff: Learning From Celestial Beauty ; An astronomer's Op-Ed, one last chance to appreciate today's Transit of Venus before it happens.
- Carl Zimmer - Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Twig and Leaf;
- Pam Belluck: Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded ; Fine reporting that may raise some questions. By, in essence, knocking down a myth used by some in their arguments against abortion does this piece also then imply that if the myth were true it would substantiate the view that to allow these meds to be used is an error?
Lots more, as usual. Whole Section
- Charlie Petit