back to article US military gives NASA two better-than-Hubble telescopes

In a surprise reminder that NASA is not the only US space program – nor likely the best-funded one – the US Department of Defense's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is giving the perennially underfunded space administration two better-than-Hubble-class space telescopes, prosaically named Telescope One and Telescope Two. …


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  1. AndrueC Silver badge

    What shocks me about this story is that Digital Spy's General Discussion section knew about this the day before The Register. Does this mean that tomorrow The Register will run a story about a dead cat being made into a helicopter?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Don't worry, The Register will be first to reveal that the Queen has had Cliff Richard stuffed and mounted on a helicopter in the same pose and facial expression as the cat, as part of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

      It'll have an animatronic mouth that moves in time to a medley of his greatest hits, and hovers above the baying hordes outside the Buckingham Palace.

    2. Alan Dougherty

      Quite possibly, however, since the enitre country shut down last Friday for a four day weekend, I say it'll be Thursday at the earliest..

    3. Stoneshop Silver badge

      AndrueC, can I have tomorrow's lottery numbers?

      Your defocused temporal perception is spot on.

  2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    "not only equipped with the same 7.9-foot mirrors as is the Hubble, they're also fitted with secondary mirrors that improve focusing"

    IIRC they will need special secondary mirrors to improve focusing if they have the same mirror as Hubble.

  3. Jeebus

    Who needs to know how we exist when the US is so busy making so many not exist in countries they're not wanted or needed.

    1. Zombie Womble

      Creationists of course. You do know it's all done to test their faith, so without new discoveries to get them running back to their bibles they just might have to start thinking.

  4. Malmesbury

    JWST has eaten all the money. Bet you that the James Webb telescope management are trying to put these sets of optics on eBay as we speak.

    1. Kharkov

      JWST has eaten all the money?

      JWST has gone way over-budget, true.

      But it's eaten all the money? SLS is planned to suck down 10 BILLION dollars prior to its first scheduled launch in December 2017. MPCV (Orion) is planned to suck down another 6 BILLION dollars over the same time-frame.

      Dropping the likely-to-be-cancelled-before-it-ever-flies (and stunningly expensive) SLS will free up more than enough money to equip, run and launch both satellites. It's worth noting how ridiculously overfunded the US defence/security budget is while NASA has to rub along with less than the Defence Department air-conditioning budget.

  5. Wile E. Veteran


    Future payloads for the Space-X Falcon Heavy?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Hmmmm

      Assuming they weigh about as much as Hubble (~11,000kg), then the yet-to-be-flown, Falcon 9 v1.1 should suffice.

      (it's basically a stretched Falcon 9)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "perennially underfunded"

    You know, now that there's finally people aiming for sub-million-dollar launches, and getting quite close to boot, people should start to realise that the half-a-milliard pricetag (or possibly more like a milliard and a half per, depending on calculation methodology) of a single shuttle launch is a bit of a waste. Because yes, the math does add up and that means for 135 shuttle flights you could've had, well, you do the math how many launches at even ten million a pop.

    Thus, they're not so much underfunded as hopelessly inefficient. Yeah, not allowed to say it because This Is NASA, but wtf dude, that shuttle thing is like a steam engine run exclusively on high-denomination swiss bank notes. It's been so many years, we should have had several rotating-for-gravity space stations by now. If we'd been serious about getting into space, that is. NASA certainly wasn't. They were big on burning through budget, though. So their crocodile tears now are quite understandable. But not really garnering sympathy here.

    In that sense, I could make a convincing case that they've successfully held back space exploration for a couple decades. Well done lads. If that's what your overlords wanted you to do.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "perennially underfunded"

      Thanks for making me google milliard. Why use an antiquated term that makes your post hard to understand? Couldn't you have used billion to make yourself easier to understand?

      1. Uncle Slacky

        Re: "perennially underfunded"

        Ah, but UK billion != US billion (although since the 1970s the BBC has treated them as interchangeable).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "perennially underfunded"

          No, I'm afraid that a UK billion does equal a US billion, and has since the 70s, when we officially moved over to using the short scale. The BBC is a government office, so follows the official government standards. No official figures should use long scale any more. I haven't even heard anyone trying to pass a billion off as a million million for at least 15 years.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "perennially underfunded"

            "The BBC is a government office"? Umm, no, no it isn't.


            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: "perennially underfunded"

              Semantics. The BBC is using the 'correct' UK billions, rather than the incorrect long scale ones. Everyone I know uses short scale billions.

              There's no point clinging to outmoded measurements and terms, if you want my 2d worth...

        2. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Re: billion

          The UK standardized on 10^9 = a billion in the 1970s, but they forgot to tell anybody. Nevertheless it's done and dusted. Use SI prefixes if you still don't like it. Although probably you're the sort of person who also doesn't like SI.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            ... in the sense that some political hack of the day told Hansard he liked the pond-leftists way better. This is a bit different from the way, oh, the SI standardises things. As such, a political decision (for see, made by a politician) and subject to political foibles. That I'm perfectly free to toy with.

            As to SI units, I grew up with the metric system, so an inch to me is 2.54cm (or 25.4mm, or 0.254dm, or 2.54*10^-2 metres), and the rest is guesswork or having to look it up or run it through units(1).

            It seems your assumptions are a bit off, sir.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "perennially underfunded"

          "In 1974, the government of the UK switched to the short scale, a change that is reflected in its mass media and official usage"

          So UK billion = US billion and has for quite a time

      2. peyton?

        Re: milliard


        He should've quoted his numbers in gigadollars (or megapounds, if you prefer).

    2. oregonensis

      Re: "perennially underfunded"

      What would you call the Mars rovers' (or any probe's, for that matter) extended life cycles? Or salvaging Skylab from Apollo leftovers? Even before the budget body blow of the mid-70s, the plan was not to build new craft to go to Venus, but to reuse Apollo parts. They do a lot of good work on a lot less than most US agencies. Let's not forget that most people still see space exploration as a waste. Part of NASA's inefficiency stems from its being underfunded in the first place. If budget cuts force them to scrap the hugely expensive design work on Constellation, how is starting over going to help make things more efficient? Another huge blow to NASA is our changing military needs. Without the arms race, there could have been no space race, not least of all because of rocket tech's dependance on ICBM tech, but also because military contractors built the craft and because of nationalist feelings. If my nationalist drives are satiated by driving a big car with a flag hanging out the window, who cares about Mars? NASA engineers are quite creative about what to do with their limited resources, and if they had even enough money to follow through on those ideas, I think you would find it could do quite well for itself.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Part of NASA's inefficiency stems from its being underfunded in the first place."

        Elsewhere you'd expect shops to get more efficient and more creative getting things done despite the budget (the story of how wossname AMRAAM came to be springs to mind), but not so NASA. You could've had a manned mission on the moon and mars at the same time for all the money poured down the black hole called space shuttle. And sure there's bound to be a couple bright engineering chaps among the many minions. But that doesn't mean management, and as a result the overall design processes, isn't rotten to the core. It is, they are, Feynman made that clear already. Yet the shuttle didn't get fixed and it didn't get cheaper. The problems got shuffled under the carpet... again.

        It is simply accepted that NASA is Expensive, and so is the military industrial complex. So is the security theatre plus accompanying service industry, so are the ill-thought-out wars that mostly cause more trouble than they could possibly solve. And yes the space race was a major motivator in the same sense that this self-declared "first" country likes to throw its weight around a lot. And it does. What the propaganda machinery usually forgets to mention is that the Russians were first with just about everything but those few footfalls out of a dinky tin can atop a rocket motor. It wasn't a stellar performance for NASA either, any way you look at it. Except if you're selling a story because you have some face-saving to spin. Then you can go full Baghdad Ali, and they did. You're right of course; if all you want is a SUV, a fat cuban sigar and stars-and-stripes shorts to go with your hawaii shirt, who cares about other planets?

        But that isn't why you do fundamental research. And yes, some of that is horrendously expensive. But I think that the shuttle project has derailed from "research" into mindless budget burning a long, long time ago. Its technology didn't get consolidated, didn't get improved and didn't get any cheaper over time. Instead, the reverse. Because of that derailment and resulting wastage it should've been scrapped at least a score years ago, to make room for a better, faster (as in, more launches), cheaper replacement, which could've been here ten years ago at the very latest. It didn't happen. Now what?

        Now, NASA shells out for off-shored spacefaring and actually gets a better, more reliable product back. That's how shoddy the thing had become. I say the budget cuts were well-deserved and long, long overdue. Now to boot all the brass and middle management and see what of engineers and technology is salvable from that space train wreck.

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: "Part of NASA's inefficiency stems from its being underfunded in the first place."

          The problem with spaceshuttle was that it was never intended to be NASA's only access to space. There were plans in space for smaller shuttles and/or other crewed vehicles before and after the shuttles started flying. The problem is, due to budget cuts and program axing, none of those ever saw the light of day. The Shuttle was intended as a heavy launch vehicle, capable of returning large loads to earth. BUT, and here's the fun bit, the US military got involved and argued for for that heavy return capability (NASA didn't want it, as it made things more expensive), the military argued for large cross-range capability to be able to return to home from just about any orbit (NASA didn't want it, because it meant larger wings and more complicated design), it was the military massaging the budget calculations and price per launch by insisting they would be doing shuttle launches from Vandenberg AFB. (Those never happened, as many predicted)

          Once the Shuttle did start flying, many more proposals for smaller crewed shuttles were made, all in an attempt to get a cheaper and more efficient way of just getting crews into orbit. All got shot down "because they already have the shuttle, why build a different one".

          The spaceshuttle was never entirely suited for the work it did and was never intended as the only means of crewed access to space. But it got forced on NASA, so they kept going. (And made good use of it for the ISS and Hubble)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            "never intended to be NASA's only access to space"

            So they got screwed by the military, didn't manage to fob them off, and didn't know when to ditch the thing for something better, and then they complain a lot when their unwanted toy gets taken from them. So it's still someone else's fault?

            I don't really buy that. Of course in politics it's never cut-and-dried, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter who screwed who. If someone'd cared enough they'd slapped the military down. NASA's results embody how that nation went to space. In this case, spending lots and getting little back, hardly getting off the ground at all. This was the point.

            As to milliards, that too was a political decision, and everyone knows those can be flipped like a switch. And hey, if going against it allows me to make a subtle political statement, then why not? Always interesting to see who colours themselves flustered, even if it is by woosh.

            1. imanidiot Silver badge

              Re: "never intended to be NASA's only access to space"

              NASA knew exactly when to ditch the Shuttle. Problem is, they get their funding directly from the government, and whenever a project got started to replace or work alongside the shuttle, some dickhead senator would go: OOOHHHHH, shiny NASA project, I can axe that to look like I'm cutting cost!. And this happened every time. A lot of NASA top-brass SO wanted to axe the shuttle and actually get a worthwhile project going to replace it. But every time they did, the project gets axed by some politician trying to look good to the voters.

              And then why did the constellation project cost such a shit tonne of dollars for a relatively meager return? Simple, politician X says, sure I'll give you a budget, but you have to produce at least X in my state. Then the next guy says the same, etc, etc. So they need more to cobble together a new system out of old parts. Extra complication, they've gone so many years without a development program actually bearing any fruit they have no new tech developed. To start from the ground up would be much more efficient, but would involve starting up, refurbishing, reinstating, etc so much of the old research programs all this stuff is added to the cost of the project. In short, everything that was "saved" on NASA in the past now has to be invested in the new project to get things going gain.

              And yeah, sure, NASA is a sluggish beast of a government "program" which could be much more efficient. But due to the past cuts, NASA has often had to focus on just keeping going. There's simply no time to pull back, reorganise and increase efficiency.

              1. Fatman

                RE: Re: "never intended to be NASA's only access to space"

                This portion of your comment:

                `A lot of NASA top-brass SO wanted to axe the shuttle and actually get a worthwhile project going to replace it. But every time they did, the project gets axed by some politician trying to look good to the voters.`

                explains WHY SpaceX can be so successful. NO FUCKING POLITICIANS meddling with spending priorities.

                Pint, because after the successful launch, docking and return of Dragon, you guys at SpaceX earned it.

  7. Gene

    3 words...

    Giant Space Binoculars!

    1. Dire Criti¢

      Re: 3 words...

      ...Good news people...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 3 words...

        Everyone, not people.

        1. Barry Dingle

          Re: 3 words...

          I think not

  8. dmck

    Use the mini-me unmanned military shuttle(s) to lift them to the orbit required

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: unmanned military shuttle(s)


      Clearly this is the next job for SPB after launching LOHAN. Apart from the increased lift capability, the project calls for a craft accomodating a 2-person crew, the by now well-experienced playmonaut to put the binoculars exactly there in orbit, accompanied by this fellow: Because as everyone knows, there's still nothing beating those old-fashioned large-format cameras for image quality.

  9. Zolko Silver badge

    Focus ?

    A military telescope is meant to look down at Earth, so it's focus is at some 100 km, varying according to the orbit but also the angle of observation, so it *needs* to be adjustable. An astronomical telescope is meant to look at stars, at infinity focus and fixed. The difference is non-zero, but adjusting the focus is by no means useful for an astronomical telescope.

    Now, this being said ... why not take all this to the ISS and refurbish all the gear ? Wouldn't *that* be the primary raison-d'être of any space station ?

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Focus ?

      Kim Jong Eun can use it to check if he's cleaned his teeth properly!

      @Rik nice article highlighting just how flush the US military still is. NASA might have to put stuff out to fixed cost contracts but over at DARPA the party never stops.

    2. AdamWill

      Re: Focus ?

      "A military telescope is meant to look down at Earth"

      Says who?

      Not to don my tin foil hat, but apparently pretty much no-one had heard of the NRO till yesterday, and nobody knew it had two Hubbles knocking around in its warehouse (right behind the Holy Grail, probably). So why are you so sure you know what they were looking at?

      1. Argus Tuft
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Focus ?

        "A military telescope is meant to look down at Earth

        Says who?"

        indeed - maybe they are up there to keep watch for the approaching Vogons?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Focus ?

        Because that's what the NRO does? That's it's mission.

        Plenty of people have heard of the NRO. No tin-foil required: They were acknowledged as existing back in the 70s, sometime. I don't even think their budget is fully-black.

        I'm personally more amused by the fact that the cutting edge of civilian space-borne scopes is so much charity-shop rubbish for the NRO! (Not really... as I recall it's been known for ages that the Hubble mirror was almost certainly the same as what the NRO had been using.)

        I'm guessing perhaps that they've moved over to SAR?

  10. Alan Firminger

    There are no cameras

    If the military had these mirrors then they would have a collection of cameras of the of matching quality. Anything less than that and they could not see what brand of corn flakes you have for breakfast. If the mirrors are government surplus why not the cameras ? The focus issue above is a trivial problem, probably within the cameras' range of adjustment.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: There are no cameras

      '...the cameras' range of adjustment.'

      That <s'> earns you the gold star.

    2. Nick Stallman

      Re: There are no cameras

      They can declassify the mirrors. They are just mirrors.

      They probably still want to keep the camera specs secret.

  11. Christoph
    Black Helicopters

    OK, so these are surplus unlaunched scopes?

    How many of this model were launched and are currently in orbit?

    And why are these two surplus?

    Either they no longer, without shuttle, have the ability to launch them - which means they know NASA certainly can't and the whole thing is a publicity stunt.

    Or they are surplus because the US military now have something much better.

    1. Ted 3
      Thumb Up

      Those were my exact first reactions on reading the article!

      You took the thoughts right out of my did you get past my tinfoil hat?

    2. Dave Bell

      They might have been designed to fit inside a Shuttle payload bay, but I don't recall the Shuttle ever launching from Vandenberg, and most of the recce satellites went into polar orbits from there.

      NASA has launched satellites into polar orbit from Vandenberg, so it's not just a military facility. Lunching Falcon Heavy from there is interesting, but SpaceX also intend to launch from Canaveral. Both sites, it's something that changes the options, putting about 20 tonnes more into LEO than anything current.

      I don't think the end of the Shuttle program has anything to do with it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Something better?

      They can still launch sats with mirrors this size on the Delta IV platform, I believe.

      That's what the NRO uses for a lot of it's launches, including the most recent suspected KH-11 launch. The KH-11 is thought to use the same (or very similar) mirror as Hubble, and the MISTY scopes might do, too. I think the NRO even tried to give some away last year, too.

      As for something better: Look up Synthetic Aperture RADAR on the interwebs.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "How many of this model were launched and are currently in orbit?"

      Hard to say, because the specs are obviously classified. 4-6ish active, perhaps. The KH-11 and Misty (and maybe EIS Sats) sats probably use fairly similar mirrors, with the same size constraints. The Hubble scope used the existing military tech in its development, remember.

      Plus there's another KH-11 bird going up next month.

      It's complete bull that the US can no longer launch this type of sat. NASA can't, but the NRO can, thanks to Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy platforms. You don't seriously believe that the US would bone it's own intelligence capabilities due to mere cash-shortage, do you?

      The NRO has probably had some cuts recently, so that might explain why they are spare. Plus, the US is using SAR a lot more now. It can see through clouds, which is fairly handy! I imagine that that is being used more instead of optical systems.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ...then two come along at once.

    So who ground the mirrors on these two then?

    Not us Brits, I hope. When we got Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond to grind the mirror for Hubble, it ended up having to go to Specsavers...

  13. William Higinbotham

    Lets do it in stereo

    Do not be so negative. This is where universities and amateur astronomy organizations get involved to help redesign. I say we send both up and get stereo views. The design of cameras and instruments are always evolving. Yes, the scientists want to put as much into it as military do to their multifunction hardware. I say make it just a basic telescope, but design the craft such that newer/upgraded imaging modules can be switch in later maintenance missions. Just ensure that the appropriate power sources for all possible instrumentation is in place at the start. PS: How about selling advertisement logo on the outside of the telescope to help fund it. Just do not make it Facebook for the project will fall flat on it's face <grin>.

    Lets get them out there!

    1. Nick Stallman

      Re: Lets do it in stereo

      Too far away for stereo. At xxx,xxx light years away, a slightly different orbit will just get you the same image.

    2. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: Lets do it in stereo

      Actually Facebook advertising would be perfect here and serve also to remind anyone thinking of buying FB shares of why they shouldn't.

      It'd be in a place where nobody would ever see it, unless they made a serious effort, just like all their existing advert spots.

    3. David_H

      Re: Lets do it in stereo

      Stereo ground observation from space is nothing new, but stereo for anything further than the inner planets just doesn't work - you can't get the observation points far enough away to make a difference int he image.

  14. phear46

    i see what this is...

    3D space..... They need something impressive to show off on everyone's 3d TVs so they can shift a few more units; because no one is impressed by the same crap effects we get in films these days..

    Isnt it obvious that the DoD, NASA and Samsung/Sony are all in it together!

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: i see what this is...

      "Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is."

      And now we could show you just how big it is in 3D, but unfortunately your TV isn't quite big enough.

      Mine's the one with the CASIO TV-10 in the pocket.

  15. Robevan

    just surplus junk now

    I dont suppose the DOD needs many space telescope spy satellites now they have stealth drones capable of photographing anywhere on earth continuously from 20, 000 m at loitering pace instead of 100,000m at 25,000 kmh with passes over target only every few hours.

  16. g e

    Get Zuckerberg to fund it

    I'm sure it's worth it to Zuck the Suck just to have robo-controlled satellite-style stereographic space pics to sell make available on his shiny new Instagram. So long as it takes square pictures, of course, and you like your speace pics with a 1970's look.

    Mind you Failbook has just plumbed a new record low in price so perhaps he's tightening his belt...

  17. Don Jefe


    People don't realize the sheer size of NASA. If they wanted to make their money go further they could can at least 100 guys at Goddard alone. The bureaucracy is simply insane. No longer are they focused (ha) on technical excellence, they are focused on pushing paper. I personally know three people in the imaging who serve no purpose at all.

    Apollo was done using off the street machinists and quite a few unstable mathematicians - there was no such thing as an astrophysicist then. Why can't they go back to that mindset?

    Oh yeah. The unions and cowardly politicians prevent that.

    1. auburnman

      Re: SIze

      It would have taken political balls of steel to slash the NASA headcount when they did their own launches; with disasters that kill astronauts not unheard of, can you imagine the headlines if there had been layoffs before a catastrophe? It might be an option now they are at arms length from launches thanks to SpaceX.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    These new google goggles are bit unwieldy aren't they?

  19. Paul Powell

    It's a gamble but...

    Why not make this the payload on the falcon heavy test flights? In terms of personnel - why not sell time on it to universities around the world and use that to pay the tech staff?

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Any chance NASA would like to hold the hat out and make this an international mission along with ESA, Roscosmos and the Chinese space agency?

  21. Sarev

    Is it just me...

    ...or is it a bit depressing that the military's sloppy seconds are 100x better than the best science has available? Oh, and there are two of them going spare, by the way.

    1. Robevan

      Re: Is it just me...

      But are they? Are these the relics of the failed Boeing Future Imagery contact to build spy telescopes that would solve the "looking through a straw" problem with the conventional telescope spy satellites? Around $10 billion dollars down the drain according to the Washington Post article I read. If they are those telescopes then clearly they were not good enough for the NRO, and making them good enough was outside the enormous budgetary resources of the NRO.

  22. Stevie


    In what shall we lift them, dear Liza, dear Liza

    In what shall we lift them

    Dear Liza in what?

    1. John Navas

      Re: Bah!

      Falcon Heavy test flight!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bah!

      Any of the things that the NRO lift them with.

      1. Kharkov

        Re: Bah!

        Can NASA use some of the money that that the NRO lifts them with as well?

  23. John Navas

    Military bloat and waste!

    Can there now be any real question that US military spending is way out of control?!

    1. Stevie

      Re: Military bloat and waste!


  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why build one when you can build two for the price of one?

    Anyone ever see Contact? Given the way Military budgets work, it is entirely possible to build several devices for the cost of one.

  25. SirDigalot

    It is a little interesting

    To realise that the military have these things and lots of other interesting hardware lying around, since they were probably never used, or are the backups for something that was/is in use but has hit its eol, i wonder what other stuff they have in storage, and i alsowonder if someone actually knows it is in storage, there might be a warehouse somewhere full of awesomeness that was simply forgotten along with the old caretaker who signed up when he was 18 and is now pushing 90

  26. Justicesays


    Need $8.6 billion to fund the construction and launch of two "better than hubble" space telescopes.

    Already have the telescopes, need to get cameras/instruments and launch payload on a big-ass rocket.

    Pledge $15 or more,

    Huge resolution desktop wallpaper of some fancy nebula somewhere

    Pledge $100

    Chance to have a newly discovered asteroid/comet named after you

    Pledge $100000

    1 day of satellite tasking at sky section of your choice

    Pledge $1 billion

    1 week of satellite tasking at world leader/military target of your choice.

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