Spybirds: POPPY 8 and the dawn of satellite ocean surveillance

Flyaway

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Spybirds: POPPY 8 and the dawn of satellite ocean surveillance
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, May 10, 2021

At the end of September 1969, a Thor-Agena rocket roared off its launch pad in California and climbed high over the Pacific Ocean, heading south. The rocket dropped its stubby pencil-like solid booster motors not very long after lifting off and continued its arc. A few minutes later, its first stage, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen, ran low on fuel and its engine shut down. The Agena upper stage separated and small motors fired, pushing it away and forcing the fuel in its tanks to settle to the rear, and in moments its Bell rocket engine ignited, pushing it faster and higher. Its bulbous nose cone separated and flew away, revealing a cluster of four shiny, egg-shaped satellites surrounding a small pointy object. Upon reaching orbital velocity the Agena’s engine shut down and the shiny satellites began to pop off, pushed away by springs. Each satellite was about the size of a toddler, and collectively they were known as POPPY 8. They were followed by several other satellites that also separated from the front of the Agena. Moments later, various small satellites were pushed off the rear of the Agena. Then came the finale: at the rear of the Agena, a box-shaped satellite the size of a fat suitcase and named WESTON rotated back on a hinge and was shoved away on springs before firing its solid rocket motor and heading to a higher orbit.

In all, ten satellites were pushed off the Agena that day. There were no rocketcams to record the deployment, and there was no reporting of the event to the press. Of the ten satellites, six were top secret, their missions unknown except to an exclusive cadre of intelligence experts possessing the proper security clearances. Today, due to declassifications by the National Reconnaissance Office, it has become apparent that this launch represented a significant turning point in the history of satellite signals intelligence, when satellites were no longer collecting data to be analyzed at a future time, but to be used in near-real-time, to support military forces. Because as soon as POPPY 8’s satellites reached orbit, they began hunting for Soviet warships on the high seas.

 

Archibald

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They flew 365 Agenas, nearly one per day of the year. That little stage could do so many things: it got the first spysats, the first (and only) US nuclear reactor in space (SNAP-10A), the first electric thrusters (SERT-II), and the first SLAR in orbit, military (QUILL) and civilian (Seasat). Plus probes to Moon, Mars, Venus.
 

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.
 

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.

It may be that it can be declassified, but it is so obscure that it has not appeared in any documents that have been declassified.

There are small experiments which had little documentation, and thus there is little to release. There is a camera that was flown on one CORONA mission that is mentioned in a few documents, but there are no illustrations or pictures of it. It was a longer focal length camera (not a little thing), but it was a one-off experiment that apparently did not work all that well. I'd like to see an illustration or photo of that, but it apparently does not exist.
 

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.

It may be that it can be declassified, but it is so obscure that it has not appeared in any documents that have been declassified.

There are small experiments which had little documentation, and thus there is little to release. There is a camera that was flown on one CORONA mission that is mentioned in a few documents, but there are no illustrations or pictures of it. It was a longer focal length camera (not a little thing), but it was a one-off experiment that apparently did not work all that well. I'd like to see an illustration or photo of that, but it apparently does not exist.
Thank you. Is it fair comment to say that these particular POPPY satellites are the direct antecedents of the NOSS satellites?
 

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.

It may be that it can be declassified, but it is so obscure that it has not appeared in any documents that have been declassified.

There are small experiments which had little documentation, and thus there is little to release. There is a camera that was flown on one CORONA mission that is mentioned in a few documents, but there are no illustrations or pictures of it. It was a longer focal length camera (not a little thing), but it was a one-off experiment that apparently did not work all that well. I'd like to see an illustration or photo of that, but it apparently does not exist.
Thank you. Is it fair comment to say that these particular POPPY satellites are the direct antecedents of the NOSS satellites?

Yes. It went GRAB/DYNO --> POPPY --> PARCAE.

I'll be writing a sequel to this about improvements in satellite ocean surveillance in the 1970s and 1980s. Already have a draft in the works, but it won't appear for a few weeks. I have a few other articles that will appear between now and that one.
 

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.

It may be that it can be declassified, but it is so obscure that it has not appeared in any documents that have been declassified.

There are small experiments which had little documentation, and thus there is little to release. There is a camera that was flown on one CORONA mission that is mentioned in a few documents, but there are no illustrations or pictures of it. It was a longer focal length camera (not a little thing), but it was a one-off experiment that apparently did not work all that well. I'd like to see an illustration or photo of that, but it apparently does not exist.
Thank you. Is it fair comment to say that these particular POPPY satellites are the direct antecedents of the NOSS satellites?

Yes. It went GRAB/DYNO --> POPPY --> PARCAE.

I'll be writing a sequel to this about improvements in satellite ocean surveillance in the 1970s and 1980s. Already have a draft in the works, but it won't appear for a few weeks. I have a few other articles that will appear between now and that one.
Have they declassified anything from the first generation NOSS satellites?
 

blackstar

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I wonder why it is that one of the payloads is still classified out of all of them after over 50 years.

It may be that it can be declassified, but it is so obscure that it has not appeared in any documents that have been declassified.

There are small experiments which had little documentation, and thus there is little to release. There is a camera that was flown on one CORONA mission that is mentioned in a few documents, but there are no illustrations or pictures of it. It was a longer focal length camera (not a little thing), but it was a one-off experiment that apparently did not work all that well. I'd like to see an illustration or photo of that, but it apparently does not exist.
Thank you. Is it fair comment to say that these particular POPPY satellites are the direct antecedents of the NOSS satellites?

Yes. It went GRAB/DYNO --> POPPY --> PARCAE.

I'll be writing a sequel to this about improvements in satellite ocean surveillance in the 1970s and 1980s. Already have a draft in the works, but it won't appear for a few weeks. I have a few other articles that will appear between now and that one.
Have they declassified anything from the first generation NOSS satellites?

The surprising thing about that program is what was not classified in the first place.
 

Flyaway

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I am copying and pasting this post by Blackstar over from NSF just in case anyone over here can offer suggestions as regards the enquiry at the end of the post. Plus it’s applicable to the theme of this thread.

Been working on the ocean surveillance article (follow-on to this week's POPPY 8 article).

There's still not a lot of new data on the satellite side, but I've been able to assemble a fuller picture of what was going on. If you look at the info released about POPPY, you see that a lot of the technology and techniques proven with the POPPY satellites made their way into the PARCAE satellites, such as the microthrusters for station-keeping, the multi-satellite constellations, etc. There was a problem with one of the POPPY missions where it ended up on its side, so they used gravity boom stabilization on PARCAE. Things like that.

What is particularly interesting to me is how POPPY was really designed to feed to fixed ground stations, but then PARCAE was eventually adapted to feed to deployed platforms (ships and aircraft, possibly even subs). How they did that is unclear, but if you start to think about it, that must have been a significant undertaking. I don't know how it changed the satellites (different transmitters?), but it meant that the Navy had to develop and deploy a lot of antennas, sticking them on everything. We still don't know how many POPPY ground stations there were, but once PARCAE was adapted to provide data directly to the fleet, the Navy had to produce hundreds of receiving antennas.

Something I need to figure out is what antennas were added to Navy ships in this time period to get the data.
You do realize that I post in both forums, right?
Therefore I have deleted my OP.
 

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Shipkillers: from satellite to shooter at sea
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, June 28, 2021

In late summer 1973, a US reconnaissance satellite photographed a large warship under construction at Leningrad Shipyard Ordzhonikid 189 on the Baltic. The warship had a distinctive bottom plate and was obviously one of the largest vessels ever built by the Soviet Union. The CIA soon designated it as Baltic Combatant #1, or BALCOM 1 for short. Throughout the 1970s satellites continued to fly overhead as the warship took shape, photographing the shipyard as workers installed a nuclear reactor and large diagonal silos for launching massive cruise missiles.[1] Eventually the ship was named Kirov and arrived in Northern Fleet waters in early October 1980. Late that year, the ship was conducting cruise missile and surface-to-air missile firings. By that time, a second Kirov was under construction and preparing for launch in 1981.[2]

The Kirov was equipped with 20 large SS-N-19 cruise missiles. The NATO code name for this missile was “Shipwreck.” Even before the Kirov was launched, the US Navy soon began looking for ways of killing the massive cruiser before it could launch its Shipwreck missiles at American aircraft carriers. The Kirov, like most large Soviet warships, was covered in antennas. When any of them turned on, some of their emissions traveled out into space, and American satellites could intercept them.

The emergence of the Kirov was just the latest development in what US intelligence analysts had assessed as an increasingly powerful and capable Soviet Navy. Up until the mid-1960s, the Soviet Navy had primarily stayed relatively close to the motherland. But by the middle of that decade, Soviet vessels began traveling farther and operating longer in the world’s oceans. In August 1969, the US intelligence community, and the request of the Chief of Naval Operations, formally added a new mission for its fleet of top-secret satellites: ocean surveillance.[3] That mission was based upon experience gained from the POPPY 7 mission, launched in 1967 and used to track Soviet warships in the Mediterranean. POPPY was different than other American low-altitude signals intelligence satellites because it did not record the signals it intercepted but relayed them directly to a ground station—a so-called “bent pipe” system. This meant that the data relayed from the satellites was current, a vital requirement for locating moving ships. Ground stations were in the territories of American allies on the periphery of the Soviet Union, such as Turkey. Many of the POPPY ground stations were also conveniently situated near large bodies of water, meaning that when over the Soviet Union POPPY satellites could gather signals from the ground, and when over the water they could gather signals from ships, relaying them to the same ground stations.
 

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In the next few weeks I'll have a very lengthy article about the P-11 small signals intelligence satellites. I have a ton of new information on them. There were about 30 of them launched over approximately three decades, and I have detailed information on about a third of them. The "Shipkillers" article mentioned TRIPOS/SOUSEA, which were P-11s. I've got them and a bunch of others.
 

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And here is that article.


Little Wizards: Signals intelligence satellites during the Cold War
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, August 2, 2021

In the early 1960s, somebody at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company—it is not clear who—came up with the idea of putting a small satellite on the back end of an Agena spacecraft and popping it off when the Agena reached orbit. The Agena served as a second stage and also provided stability, power, and communications for numerous military and intelligence payloads, making it both a rocket stage and a spacecraft. There was extra room near the Agena’s engine, and somebody realized that a small satellite could be placed there, getting a free ride to orbit. The deployed satellite could even have a small solid rocket motor that could propel it to a higher orbit.

The initial proposal was for a circular-shaped satellite that would have been about the size of a large pizza (although thicker), but this was quickly refined into a squat, pyramidal box about the size of a fat suitcase. There was enough room on the long sides of the box to carry electronics, and clever engineers found ways to fold multiple antennas along the top, bottom, and sides. The project was named Program 11, and the satellites soon were known as P-11s.

Over the course of three decades, around two-thirds of the 44 satellites were launched off the backs of various Agenas and slightly less than a third were launched off HEXAGON reconnaissance spacecraft, with a few launched by other means. Most of the P-11s were on top secret missions to gather intelligence about radar and communications systems in the Soviet Union. Due to recent declassifications by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that managed America’s intelligence gathering satellites, it is now possible to describe the missions and equipment of many of these P-11 satellites, which performed electronic wizardry in the murky recesses of the Cold War, and probably beyond.
 

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The Agena really has a great history. The rocket engine was developed for a missile that was to be launched off the B-58 Hustler. When the engine was adapted for space use, those working on it originally called the rocket stage the Hustler.

The stage was originally designed only as a second stage, but it had a horizon sensor that was required to determine if it was pointed in the right attitude to make orbit. The people working on it realized that if the horizon sensor worked for the few minutes needed to get the stage and its payload into orbit, they could leave that horizon sensor on (powered by batteries) and it could be used to point the stage in orbit--turning the rocket stage into a spacecraft.

At some point during the development, somebody realized that there was a lot of extra space near the aft part of the Agena, on the sides of the engine. They realized they could mount racks there and attach electronics (there were already other systems located in some parts of this aft rack area). So they eventually started mounting signals intelligence payloads and antennas there at the aft rack, which became known as the AFTRACK program.

Eventually, somebody realized that there was enough room at that aft rack that a small satellite could be mounted there and popped off the stage once it was in orbit. That's where the P-11 satellites came along.

Other things could be mounted to those aft racks, like solar panels. And Agena went from having a simple single engine firing capability to having a dual fire capability (in other words, restarting it once in orbit). Then it got a multi-start capability. And when it got this multi-start capability, eventually it became a viable rendezvous target for Gemini.

Agena proved to be very versatile.
 

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The Agena really has a great history. The rocket engine was developed for a missile that was to be launched off the B-58 Hustler. When the engine was adapted for space use, those working on it originally called the rocket stage the Hustler.

And afterwards they never went together again.
What is amusing is, there were many air launch B-58 proposals immediately after its "divorce" with the Agena engine - but none involving an Agena. Mostly with Polaris missiles.
Would have been interesting to hang an Agena D on a B-58 belly pylon and drop that at Mach 2. Could have launched some hundred pounds of payload in Earth orbit.
 

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Two images from the article. The scratchy one is the early proposal for what became the P-11 subsatellite (sometimes referred to as the Hitchhiker ca. 1963). Second image is from an Agena user's manual showing that it could deploy satellites. This shows how the circular satellite became a rectangular pyramidal box.
 

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Would have been interesting to hang an Agena D on a B-58 belly pylon and drop that at Mach 2. Could have launched some hundred pounds of payload in Earth orbit.
No, it wouldn't have enough propellant to make into orbit.
 

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I've been practicing the Jim since 2008 at NASAspaceflight and elsewhere. He is truly space forums grumpy cat. And no, I won't start an argument with the man - seen too many people crashing and burn. I pass my turn there.
 

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Wizards redux: revisiting the P-11 signals intelligence satellites
by Dwayne A. Day
Tuesday, September 7, 2021

September 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). For the 50th anniversary, the NRO declassified two major Cold War era photo-reconnaissance satellites named HEXAGON and GAMBIT. Will the NRO do something similar this time? Those who follow the NRO’s history have heard rumors that they might declassify the KH-11 KENNEN near-real-time reconnaissance satellite that first flew in 1976, although that might be a bit of wishful thinking. (See “Intersections in real time: the decision to build the KH-11 KENNEN reconnaissance satellite,” The Space Review, September 9, 2019.) One small step the NRO could take is to finish the declassification of the P-11 signals intelligence satellites that were built and launched from 1963 to 1992.

Starting in 2015, the NRO began declassifying several of its signals intelligence satellite programs in a series of phases. The first phase involved a program known as AFTRACK that placed signals detection payloads on the aft racks of Agena spacecraft launched into low Earth orbit from the late 1950s to 1964. AFTRACK was virtually unknown until the NRO released dozens of documents on the program. It was the space example of a “quick reaction capability” for radar and electronics that the Air Force had developed since the Korean War. The next step, which the NRO referred to as “phase two,” was the 2017 declassification of a series of 16 large satellites known by numerous names and the overarching designation of Program 770. These satellites were launched into low Earth orbit between 1960 and 1972. They carried several payloads and had multiple missions, but a primary mission was the detection and location of air defense radars within the Soviet Union to aid American strategic bomber crews. (See “The wizard war in orbit,” The Space Review, June 20, 2016, Part 1, 2, 3, and 4; “And the sky full of stars: American signals intelligence satellites and the Vietnam War,” The Space Review, February 12, 2018.)

At the time of the phase two declassification, the NRO indicated that phase three of their signals intelligence declassification effort would take place by 2018 and that it would involve the P-11 satellites that essentially took over the duties of the AFTRACK program, flying similar payloads but for many months rather than the few days for AFTRACK. The first P-11 satellites were launched in 1963, and the last in 1992, although the overall program name changed several times, and the satellite configurations changed as well. The NRO also began releasing information on the P-11 satellites themselves, usually in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Initially this included photographs as well as the names and general mission descriptions of many of the satellites. But by late 2020, in response to a FOIA request, the NRO released significant technical details on approximately a quarter of the P-11 programs. Clearly the NRO has determined that much information on the P-11s is releasable, it simply has not yet been released. (See “Little Wizards: Signals intelligence satellites during the Cold War,” The Space Review, August 2, 2021.)
 

Flyaway

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
 

Flyaway

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
 

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
That one is a weird one--they actually released photos and video of one of the spacecraft as it was being built. The one they showed was not a shuttle payload. So some aspect of it was declassified. But I suspect that they re-imposed the classification status later. I have not sought to FOIA anything related to that. It was an odd part of NRO history.
 

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
They only showed the bare structure of the spacecraft bus and nothing of the radar payload. The photo had no detail on the mission, operation or capabilities of Lacrosse. Lacrosse is still very classified as well as the relay satellite "revealed" at the same time.
 

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
They only showed the bare structure of the spacecraft bus and nothing of the radar payload. The photo had no detail on the mission, operation or capabilities of Lacrosse. Lacrosse is still very classified as well as the relay satellite "revealed" at the same time.
Yet I seem to remember somebody took pictures of them in orbit, and not just dots in the sky, and then published them online.
 

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
They only showed the bare structure of the spacecraft bus and nothing of the radar payload. The photo had no detail on the mission, operation or capabilities of Lacrosse. Lacrosse is still very classified as well as the relay satellite "revealed" at the same time.
Yet I seem to remember somebody took pictures of them in orbit, and not just dots in the sky, and then published them online.
they were just blobs of light.
 

Flyaway

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One thing I suppose they could do is declassify some of the stuff around the classified Shuttle missions as that remains a gap in the program history.
No, because the payloads are still classified.
Lacrosse isn’t as classified as some as it was part of an experiment at the time about being more open about certain programs I believe.
They only showed the bare structure of the spacecraft bus and nothing of the radar payload. The photo had no detail on the mission, operation or capabilities of Lacrosse. Lacrosse is still very classified as well as the relay satellite "revealed" at the same time.
Yet I seem to remember somebody took pictures of them in orbit, and not just dots in the sky, and then published them online.
they were just blobs of light.
Not the ones I was thinking of.
 

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Lollipops and ASATs
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, October 11, 2021

Although most of the secret satellites launched by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in the 1960s have now been declassified, there are very few photos of the completed spacecraft preparing for launch. Except for a few photos of early CORONA satellites being readied for launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, there is almost nothing else, even though we would expect at least a few to have been released by now. The reason may be due to systems that the CIA and NRO added to the satellites to protect them from anti-satellite attack. The CIA was worried about possible attack on reconnaissance satellites from the beginning, and some information on early “vulnerability payloads” has been declassified, but there are also hints that as the Soviet ASAT threat grew, so did efforts to protect American reconnaissance satellites that would have been their obvious targets.

From SOCTOP to STOPPER
Discoverer 13 was the first successful recovery of a satellite capsule from orbit. When the small reentry vehicle was grabbed out of the air by an Air Force C-119 “Flying Boxcar” in August 1960, the successful mission came at the end of a long string of failures. Although Discoverer was a cover story for the top secret and covert CORONA reconnaissance satellite program, Discoverer 13 did not carry a camera and therefore its success was widely publicized, both for propaganda and to emphasize the cover story that the satellite was not developed for military purposes. But Discoverer 13 did carry a piece of top secret equipment, a small signals intelligence payload named SOCTOP mounted near its engine, and SOCTOP provided some alarming data: on nearly every orbit over the Soviet Union, SOCTOP reported that the satellite was being tracked by radar. This meant that the Soviet Union had far more space tracking radars than United States intelligence agencies believed. This was important. This was dangerous.

It was also wrong.

It turned out, upon closer analysis of the data, that SOCTOP was reporting American radars that were tracking the spacecraft when it returned its telemetry.[1] SOCTOP’s designers were embarrassed, but the requirement that led to SOCTOP’s inclusion on Discoverer 13 was valid. Those in charge of the CORONA reconnaissance program wanted to make sure that the Soviet Union was not tracking or trying to interfere with the satellites. Soon they initiated programs to better protect them.

Part of the impetus for creating SOCTOP was the proliferation of new and unknown Soviet radar systems. The big HEN HOUSE radars that had appeared in U-2 spyplane and satellite photos were potentially capable of tracking satellites in orbit. But there were also unknown antennas showing up on Soviet trawlers and tracking ships, and intelligence analysts were concerned that these could be directed at American satellites.
 

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