The Hubble being deployed. My guess is this photo is from NASA but it might be from an alien spaceship. Credit: Tralfamadorian News Service.

At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal poses a number of questions about this rather startling technology transfer, including:

“....if the DOD didn’t need these two birds, which are both better than any civilian telescope, what *do* they have? Are drones replacing space telescopes? Are there much better telescopes already up there?

“ did this happen? Were two satellite scientists out at brunch and the military lady turns to the civilian guy and says, ‘You know, we have a couple telescopes in the shop, if you guys need them.’”

Here’s my semi-informed effort to answer Alexis.

I’m told by a government engineer with knowledge of the new instruments that they’re “a successful part of an otherwise failed program on the NRO side.” The NRO told me that some components were removed from the telescopes before they were signed over to NASA. It seems plausible that for some technical reason these two telescopes, which NRO told me were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s, didn’t meet the latest standard for eyes in the sky. It’s like everything else in our high-tech world. No one wants a 10-year-old desktop computer.

As for what they else the military/intelligence agencies have up there, well, they have more of these KH-11 Kennan spy satellites that use Hubble-class mirrors. In fact, the Hubble mirror is 2.4 meters because that was already an industry standard. As I understand the situation, NASA saved money back in the 1980s by making the Hubble something of a twin of a spy satellite (if I’m wrong about this please let me know in the comments). [Here’s a good article by Dwayne Day in The Space Review on the history of KH-11s and the efforts to come up with a new generation of spy satellites.]

As for how this transfer came about, the answer is, with much effort on the part of NRO and NASA folks. This was not a casual deal. The NRO’s instincts run toward extreme secrecy. Hence the fact that we can’t see a photo of the telescopes, STILL, other than one absurdly redacted. NASA, meanwhile, has known about these telescopes for quite a while. One NASA boss told me he’d known about them for five years. Another, Jon Morse, former head of astrophysics at NASA and now at Rensselaer, said he and his colleagues worked their tails off to make something good happen for space science amid an era of budgetary gloom and doom.

So the story that broke yesterday was really a controlled roll-out by NASA of something that’s been in the works for nearly a year and a half.

As with any hand-me-down, this gift looks great at the moment but may lose some luster. If NASA were to start from scratch it wouldn’t design a space telescope precisely like this one, as I understand it. But this appears to match, or maybe exceed, the requirements for WFIRST, the dark energy-studying telescope that’s the top priority of the scientific community. It was only after the scientists and engineers scrutinized the mothballed miliary spy telescopes, and determined that they’d be useful, that NASA revealed the unusual technology transfer.

Image credited to Hubble Space Telescope, NASA, European Space Agency and J. Hester. Supposedly this is some giant cloud of dust and gas in deep space but I bet you dollars to donuts it’s actually Waziristan. (Hubble Space TelescopeNASAEuropean Space Agency and J. Hester)