[ index | 1970 ]

Rhyolite (1967-1985)

40. The CIA developed a second class of Sigint satellite with complementary capabilities over the period from 1967 to 1985. Initially known as RHYOLITE and later AQUACADE, these satellites were operated from a remote ground station in central Australia, Pine Gap. Using a large parabolic antenna which unfolded in space, RHYOLITE intercepted lower frequency signals in the VHF and UHF bands. Larger, most recent satellites of this type have been named MAGNUM and then ORION. Their targets include telemetry, VHF radio, cellular mobile phones, paging signals, and mobile data links.

41. A third class of satellite, known first as JUMPSEAT and latterly as TRUMPET, operates in highly elliptical near-polar orbits enabling them to "hover" for long period over high northern latitudes. They enable the United States to collect signals from transmitters in high northern latitudes poorly covered by MERCURY or ORION, and also to intercept signals sent to Russian communications satellites in the same orbits.



In his book The Technology of Espionnage, Lauren Paine claims that one of the integrated satellites was an "orbiting laboratory in miniature".

What Mr. Paine may have been describing was an experimental prototype of a new DSP [Defense Support Program] satellite code-named Rhyolite. Launched on December 20, 1972, the prototype may have carried aloft an experimental test package for the most advanced bug ever invented. (p.252)

Under the National Reconnaissance Office [NRO] framework, the CIA awarded the contract to TRW, which put together the satellite in its windowless M-4 building at Redondo Beach. It was the same facility that built the early-warning DSP Code 949-647 satellites, but, unlike it's predecessors, Rhyolite was pure SIGINT.

First launched operationally on March 6, 1973, the satellite was placed into a geosynchronous orbit and parked above the Horn of Africa. From this aerie, Rhyolite could eavesdrop on microwave transmissions from western Russia as well as intercept telemetry signals transmitted from liquid-fuel ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] launched from the Tyuratam missile-testing rangeand solid-propellant missiles, like the SS-16 and intermediate-range SS-20, launched from Plesetsk. (p.254)


Rhyolite itself, when packaged and ready for launch, looks like a lumpy, shiny box, about half the size of a railroad boxcar. Once released into orbit, however, the box springs open like an accordion to reveal a giant, seventy-foot concave, dish-shaped antenna designed to pick up distant signals. (p.510)

On June 18, 1975, the prototype for a new satellite system, and advanced Rhyolite code-named Argus, is reported to have been shot into geosynchronous orbit. This would have carried an antenna almost twice the size of Rhyolite, about 140 feet in diameter, virtually doubling the quality and quantity of signals received. (p.511)

A second Rhyolite was hoisted into geosynchronous orbit on May 23, 1977, and reportedly was positioned above Borneo, where, according to a former CIA official who was initially involved in the project, it is capable of "sucking up" a wast amount of both Soviet and Chinese military communications and radar signals. (p.255)

Two more of the satellites were sent into orbit on December 11, 1977, and April 7, 1978, and placed close by the original duo to act as spares in case of a malfunction. (p.255)

-- James Bamford: THE PUZZLE PALACE, 1982.

Cf. also:
CORONA (launched 1960) -- first photo reconnaissance satellite
(launched 1968) -- first US Comint satellite
KH-11 (launched 1976) -- photo + SIGINT

[ index | 1969 ]