The James Webb Space Telescope may owe something to spy satellites


Why NASA’s James Webb telescope and its galactic discoveries may owe something to spy satellites

Update: The National Reconnaissance Office affirmed this story on Sept. 14 in response to a Grid public records request. The story has been updated with the agency response as well as a comment from Brij Agrawal of the Naval Postgraduate School that also followed publication.

While NASA’s newest, biggest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), has seized the spotlight on Earth from some 1 million miles away in space, its curious, half-sized look-alike now quietly resides in an engineering lab at the Navy’s postgraduate school, a gift of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NRO is the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency, and the Segmented Mirror Telescope (SMT) has a lot in common with the famous Webb telescope, which in July revealed some of the most distant, and beautiful, views of the universe ever seen. The SMT has the same hexagonal mirrors (six of them instead of Webb’s 18), uses the same technology to adjust those mirrors and sports the same golden honeycomb looks. Donated to the Navy’s postgraduate school in 2010, it was made by the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency for research into large telescopes.

“My hunch is that JWST was a descendant, so to speak, of a spy satellite program,” said Philip Horzempa, a former astronomy professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, who now writes about satellite history. While the NRO routinely classifies information about decades-old satellites, the similar looks of the SMT and the Webb telescope — as well as decades of sightings of spy satellites that deploy antennas even bigger than the 69.5 foot-wide sun shield on NASA’s observatory — have long intrigued sky-watchers.


In response to an inquiry on the connection from Grid in July, the NRO initially promised a statement and background information on the SMT, then said it was held up for security review. The agency eventually replied to a Grid Freedom of Information Act request on Friday with its promised statement, which confirms the links between JWST and NRO’s technologies: “The science and technology that enables James Web Space Telescope today is an expansion of the technology pioneered by NRO engineers and partners decades ago.” Another NRO segmented mirror telescope from the 1960s called the Dorian camera system was also a predecessor to JWST, the statement notes. After Dorian’s cancellation, it was donated to the University of Arizona.

Spy satellite technology aiding NASA would be nothing new with the Webb telescope, said Chris Gainor, author of “Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations.” The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, was built in the same factory that built the NRO’s still-classified KH-11 spy satellites. In 2003, the space agency considered, and decided against, asking the Defense Department to aim spy satellite telescopes at the damaged wing of the space shuttle Columbia in the week on orbit before its tragic crash. And in 2012, the NRO donated the parts for two space telescopes to NASA. One set now comprises the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope that NASA plans to launch by 2027. The aims of science and covert intelligence are more interconnected than either agency is willing to embrace openly.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what’s going on because so much of what NRO does is classified,” said Gainor. “We can only go so far because you want to deal with the facts and not speculation.” But while NASA and the NRO are distinct agencies, they are essentially reliant on the same space industry contractors, he noted. Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the Webb telescope, also launches NRO spy satellites into orbit. And according to LinkedIn bios, the same contractor, ITT Space Systems Division in Rochester, New York, worked on the optics of both the SMT and Webb telescopes sometime between 2005 and 2013.

The design of the Webb telescope dates to the 1980s, although NASA has been studying large telescope designs for much longer, said Marco Langbroek, a spy satellite expert at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The NRO meanwhile has been rumored to have unfurled mesh antennas roughly 300 feet across on electronic eavesdropping missions, he said, and such designs have also been studied for decades.

Large telescope observatories on Earth such as the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii have long relied on segmented mirrors because the largest practical mirrors for astronomy top out at about eight feet in width. For the Webb telescope, optics and the limited space inside launch rocket capsules drive the need for segmented mirrors, said Massimo Stiavelli, head of the telescope’s mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute. A single-mirror telescope, like Hubble, can be launched in one piece only if it is smaller than the 12 feet across permitted on the Ariane V rockets that carried Webb into space. That’s not big enough to see the distant galaxies more than 13 billion years old that are Webb’s quarry, Stiavelli and his colleagues determined in a 1997 analysis for NASA. “Anything bigger than [14 feet] and you need segmented mirrors,” he said.


A similar need for optical power might explain the NRO’s interest in segmented mirror telescopes like the SMT. In a 2010 interview about the donated telescope, Naval Postgraduate School engineering professor Brij Agrawal said that the NRO had been interested in developing such larger telescopes that could operate at higher orbits for about 40 years prior to that time. Most spy satellites are thought to operate at lower altitudes of about 160 miles high, which has the drawback of only observing locations once or twice a day on their speedy orbits. That gives adversaries time to hide activities, knowing when these passages are coming. A spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles high, would instead park over the same location continuously. But to get images of the same resolution as the low-orbit satellites, it would need a much bigger telescope, said Horzempa. “That is where a classified version of the Webb telescope makes sense.”

In a subsequent interview, Agrawal said that the Segmented Mirror Telescope still in his lab was “state of the art” in 2010 and suggested that the NRO had lost interest in the technology because there was no way to service it with NASA’s retirement of the space shuttle at that time. In his view, the SMT is the more advanced telescope than Webb. That’s because it has 156 actuators under each mirror segment, while its bigger cousin has only a half-dozen per mirror. This is due to the visible light wavelengths observed by the SMT being more demanding to resolve than the infrared light ones captured by Webb. That means the SMT mirrors need even finer mirror deformations to make observations.

Another hint that some other part of the space industry besides NASA has already done the legwork for deployable telescopes in space comes from an even bigger, 39-foot space telescope design proposed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in 2015, Horzempa noted. The report cites “non-NASA” sources for its mirrors and their controls. Research on space-based segmented mirrors at NRO was canceled prior to the 2010 donation of the SMT, according to Agarwal’s interview that year.

NASA canceled a smaller prototype version of the Webb telescope in 2000 — one about the size of the SMT — amid increasing concern about NASA’s budget. In 2011, cost overruns led to a threat from the House budget committee to kill Webb outright. Intended for launch in 2014 at a cost of $4.5 billion, Webb was launched last Christmas after its budget doubled, and NASA’s credibility for controlling big mission cost was in tatters. Including contributions from European partners, it will end up costing around $11 billion.

“With hindsight, we can say we didn’t recognize the scale of the challenge,” said Eric Smith, the Webb telescope deputy program director at NASA. The space agency now knows that building anything as big and complicated as Webb requires more money upfront to find engineering hurdles, rather than discovering them piecemeal and having to ask for more money as they emerge, causing delays and, ultimately, a bigger price tag, said Smith.

One of the hardest parts of building Webb turned out to be its massive, five-layered heat shield, said Stiavelli, which helps cool the telescope to temperatures only a few degrees above absolute zero. A one-third scale model of Webb’s heat shield was built and tested thoroughly to simulate its unfolding in space, he added, which took years. The successful unfurling of the heat shield in January was a key moment, Stiavelli said, for the mission that included 144 separation mechanisms in its deployment.

A massive heat shield wouldn’t be needed or tested for geosynchronous spy satellites, which operate in the visible-light spectrum and don’t need cooling like infrared telescopes, noted Horzempa. That means a segmented mirror spy satellite like SMT could have been in space for decades before it was donated to engineering students 12 years ago, revealing its existence to the world and meaning it had been declassified by the NRO.

“They do not reveal a lot but will provide a few clues,” said Horzempa.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.