NRO: The Real Ice Station Zebra?

In 1971, the KH-9 Hexagon (pdf) was the United States’ most advanced spy device — as large as a school bus that carried more than 60 miles of high-resolution photographic film, reports C/Net and Wired. The 6-inch wide Hexagon film frame captured a field of view of around 370 miles, with a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet, according to the National Reconnaissance Office.

The film images were sent back to Earth in recoverable return capsules. Entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the canisters deployed a parachute and were then snagged by a plane in mid-air and returned to base for processing and analysis.

But in July 1971, the third reentry vehicle from the first Hexagon photo-satellite mission was lost, when the parachute broke, sending the canister into the open sea near Hawaii. The bucket sank on impact to a depth of more than 16,400 feet. This was sensitive info — photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos — and the decision was made to attempt to recover the valuable intelligence data.

This week, the CIA released documents relating to the spy satellite incident and the recovery mission. They used America’s most advanced deep-sea exploration vehicle at the time, the Trieste II.

Although the film canister sunk to 16,000 feet, the manned Trieste II had never gone below 10,000 feet. The whole affair was apparently the inspiration for Ice Station Zebra, reportedly the favorite film of Howard Hughes.

An Ice Station Zebra scenario may have played out at the terminus of the Hypersonic Test Vehicle lost in the Pacific, on August 11, 2011.

The MV Carolyn Chouest (location) is a chartered submarine support ship for the U.S. Navy assigned to the Special Missions Program. Only a spy sub like the USS Jimmy Carter, Deep Submergence Vessels like the Alvin, or remotely operated vehicles could operate at such depth and retrieve the test war head. Space-based AIS may soon let virtually everyone watch who is “on-station” in virtual real-time. Except for the sub, of course.

The Defense Department is attempting to develop a conventional global strike weapon to augment the military’s nuclear deterrent. The Hypersonic bomb would be able to hit a target anywhere in the world in less than an hour after launching from the United States or a U.S. military base. Blowing up stuff is what Lockheed and Boeing’s corporate generals do. The DOD has to clean up the mess.

The R/V Knorr, like other large research ships, carries an impressive array of equipment including winches, cranes, an A-frame for deploying and retrieving buoys and other heavy objects, and satellite and radio antennas.

Knorr, however, is the only ship in the world outfitted to handle the Long Core, which collects seafloor sediment cores. R/V Atlantis is the only vessel designed to support both Alvin and general oceanographic research. AGOR 27 and AGOR 28 are the newest high-tech, ocean research ships.

The USA’s University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System conducts research throughout the world’s oceans, and their fleet has shifted to 4 basic research vessel types: Global, Ocean/Intermediate, Regional and Coastal/Local.

From 2014 onward, new Ocean Class ships will replace aging Intermediate Class ships in current use, and serve alongside the new SWATH-hulled RV Kilo Moana [T-AGOR 26]. The USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) is assigned to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) Special Missions Program.

In other news, France Telecom-Orange announced today that it has suffered a major incident on its cable-ship, the Chamarel (location). A fire broke out on the ship late afternoon on 8 August while returning from a repair operation on the Sat3-Safe cable off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite the crew’s efforts to control the fire, the decision was made to abandon the ship at around 8pm local time. All 56 crew members were safely recovered by a Namibian fishing vessel without injury or incident. The crew is currently located at the Namibian port, Walvis Bay and will be repatriated in the coming days.

France Telecom says this incident has no immediate impact on submarine cables in the area, which will continue to function normally. The vessel was returning from a mission to repair the Sat3/WASC/Safe submarine cable which connects Portugal and Spain to nine West African countries, India, and other Asian countries.

Joshua Davis, a terrific writer, takes you along with The Deep Sea Cowboys from Titan Salvage to save vessels in distress.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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