In 1994, the CIA approved the release of a SECRET 1964 Studies in Intelligence report titled “Snooping on Space Pictures”, which detailed the efforts of U.S. intelligence to intercept and analyze the pictures being captured and transmitted to Earth by Russian satellites.
Here at Top Secret Writers, we’ve covered a lot about the ultra-classified Top Secret U.S. project known as Project Corona – the U.S. effort to use its own space satellites to capture images of the Soviet Union, and get those images to Earth.
While the U.S. had a system of releasing “film canisters” from the satellites and then attempting to retrieve them via aircraft, the 1964 report reveals that by the mid-1960s the soviets had already perfected the remote control of cameras in space, and the transmission of “fair-quality pictures back to earth from lunar distances.”
A significant U.S. effort at that time was, “…the work of engineering analysis in ‘breaking out’ the pictures contained in the radio transmissions.”
Watching Soviets Capture the Dark Side of the Moon
According to the report, the effort to strip out video from the transmissions included a:
“…trial-and-error aspect like cryptanalysis: since both the horizontal and vertical sweep periods are unknown variables, there are an infinite number of possible combinations.”
When the Soviets announced that they had taken pictures of the far side of the moon, U.S. intelligence and researchers at the University of Manchester in England went to work at analyzing the captured signals from the Soviet craft. Graduate students were actually the ones that were able to record their own intercept, but had narrowed their bandwidth so far that they clipped most of the useful video information.
Regardless, it was their information – the fact that the actual signal bandwidth matched that announced by the Soviets – that confirmed to U.S. intelligence that the Soviet pictures of the dark side of the moon were actually authentic.
U.S. intelligence was also able to intercept transmitted images of dog passengers that the Soviets had sent up into orbit on satellite. 58 minutes after the launch of Sputnik 11 on April 12th, 1961, the NSA was able to confirm that the transmitted video signals from the craft showed video of a man – alive and well during the historic flight.
Making Sure the Soviets Were Being Honest
Up until 1962, intercepted images from Soviet spacecraft were not very clear, and required a certain degree of analysis to confirm. However, starting with the launch of Cosmos 9 in September of 1962, U.S. intelligence analysts had finally managed to reproduce “recognizable pictures” from the transmissions.
Through the analysis of transmissions from Cosmos 9, analysts were able to determine that the craft was an experimental weather satellite. After CIA informed NASA of the Soviet capability, on December 5, 1962, NASA signed an agreement with the Soviet Academy of Sciences on the “exchange of data from meteorological satellites.”
The efforts did not end there. Once NASA entered into agreement with the Soviet meteorologists to share satellite imagery, the intelligence analysts continued to monitor the Soviet satellites simply to confirm whether they were really sharing those images. The document explains:
“When the exchange of data from meteorological satellites begins, anticipated in 1965, it will be up to the intelligence community to establish that the cloud pictures the Soviets give us are as complete and as good as what they receive from their satellites.”
The irony is that through its interception of Soviet satellite images, the U.S. didn’t even need to enter into a scientific satellite imagery-sharing agreement, since it already had access to the images.
Clearly, the U.S. was using its space-based imagery-relationship with the Soviets for another purpose entirely, and it had nothing to do with getting the Soviets to share their satellite images. More likely, the agreement was only made as an evasive maneuver, so that the Soviet would not suspect that the Americans already had such open access to the transmissions.
References & Image Credits:
(1) CIA FOIA