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A spy satellite’s rise ... and faked fall

A new book tells the tale of a satellite that fooled the Russians but not civilian skywatchers. NBC’s Robert Windrem reports.
This drawing, included in a patent application, shows how an inflatable space shield could help a satellite evade detection. Observers believe the satellite known as Misty may have used such a shield.
This drawing, included in a patent application, shows how an inflatable space shield could help a satellite evade detection. Observers believe the satellite known as Misty may have used such a shield.U.s. Patent Office

For more than a decade, the United States has had at least one and possibly more stealth spy satellites capable of peering down at targets without fear of detection, according to a new book by an intelligence historian. The author, Jeffrey T. Richelson, says that while the Soviet space tracking network failed to detect the satellite, it did not evade a small cadre of civilian space trackers.

Code-named “Misty,” the CIA-designed satellite was first launched in 1990, before the Persian Gulf War, and may have been replenished since.

“The Wizards of Langley,” a history of the CIA’s top-secret Directorate of Science and Technology, notes that the United States may have tried to hide the successful first launch of Misty by making it seem that the satellite had exploded before reaching its final orbit. Richelson says the ruse fooled the American media — and, more importantly, the Soviet Union.

10 years of research
The satellite was developed by the CIA directorate’s “tool shop,” its Office of Development and Engineering, and launched in March 1990, after nearly 10 years of research, says Richelson.

In the early 1980s, the office had determined that Misty could be successful. “It argued that Soviet radars and cameras were not very capable and were unlikely to track the satellite,” Richelson says.

That part of the equation turned out to be accurate.

“When it was first launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on March 1, 1990, it was believed to be the first advanced KH-11 spacecraft,” he says, referring to the top-of-the-line American spy satellite. “Within weeks, both U.S. and Soviet space sources reported it had malfunctioned and would make a ‘fiery re-entry in the next 30 days.’ Both assessments were wrong.”

Richelson reports that the only people who successfully kept track of the flight were civilian space observers in England and Canada who watched a series of maneuvers performed by the satellite, including the “explosion” that Richelson believes “may have been a tactic to deceive those monitoring the satellite.”

One of the observers who spoke to Richelson, Ted Molczan of Toronto, told NBC News that the supposed explosion took place on March 7, 1990, six days after launch, and was first reported by the Soviet press.

“Russia reported it had detected debris,” Molczan recalled, “and NORAD identified six pieces.”

The plan for stealthiness may have involved some clever trickery by the CIA.

“The satellite was exceedingly bright, brighter than the KH-11, and kept in a low orbit, only 250 kilometers (150 miles) above the earth, so it was easily visible,” Molczan said. “Then there was nothing after the ‘explosion.’ They apparently needed the ‘explosion’ to be long enough so they could deploy the stealth masking device.”

U.S. officials may have also used disinformation to enhance the deception, often discussing the need to develop stealthy satellites, never letting on that such satellites not only had been developed but launched as well.

The return of Misty
The observers, however, spotted the satellite again in November 1990 after it made a series of maneuvers apparently intended to put it in better position to monitor the Persian Gulf, where U.S. and allied forces were preparing to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait.

Then, last year, a civilian space observer, examining data from NORAD’s unclassified databases, determined that the satellite was still operating at least as late as 1995 in a 451-by-461-mile orbit, higher than the KH-11 satellite.

There were other leaks that he and the observers took advantage of, says Richelson.

Less than two weeks after Misty’s launch, “to the anger of many in the National Reconnaissance Office, a patent application was filed, apparently by the Strategic Defense Initiative office, for a ‘Satellite Signature Suppression Shield,’” he reports in his book.

The patent for “an inflatable shield for suppressing the characteristic radiation signature of a satellite” was eventually granted in 1994.

“The shield is conical-shaped and made from a thin synthetic polymer film material coated with a radiation reflecting material, such as gold or aluminum,” the patent application read.

Smoke and mirrors
Molczan said the way to think about the shield is to recall an old line about deception: “They do it with mirrors.”

“Their problem is reflected sunlight,” he observed. “Because of that, satellites are visible over large chunks of the earth at any given time. The problem is how to deflect sunlight. So this shield might incorporate some kind of movable mirror surface to deflect the sunlight away from the satellites when the satellite is over known detection sites.”

However, Richelson and Molczan say designers underestimated the brightness of the satellite. Richelson reports that by keeping Misty so undercover, the CIA didn’t have the benefit of expertise from government shops more knowledgeable about satellite tracking — in particular, the Naval Research Laboratory, whose offices were a few miles away across the Potomac.

Why the secrecy? Like many of the spy tools described in “The Wizards of Langley,” Misty was the result of an outsized Cold War fear, this one related to Soviet antisatellite weapons.

“Where the satellite is today is unclear,” reports Richelson. “as is how much additional intelligence Misty has yielded.”

Molczan puts the possibility of Misty still being in space at no more than 50-50, noting that the longest-lived low-Earth-orbit satellite lasted only 11 years — and that Misty would have passed its 11th birthday last March.

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer at NBC News based in New York.