March 1, 2024

The Space Review: The Missing Link: Found

The large Jodrell Bank radio telescope in England was built to observe the universe, but during the Cold War it was occasionally used to detect signals from Soviet spacecraft. According to a new podcast, the US National Security Agency used it to detect a secret signal known as “the missing link” used by the Soviets to send video images to the ground. (credit: Mike Peel; Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics, University of Manchester, Wikimedia Commons.)


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The Jodrell Bank Observatory is a research center south of Liverpool in central England. It was first established after World War II and gradually expanded to include a number of radio telescopes, the most prominent being a 76-meter (250 ft) satellite dish, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. The observatory has been the site of numerous scientific discoveries, including the study of pulsars and other exotic stellar objects. Jodrell Bank also achieved some fame during the early years of the space age when it collected signals from Soviet planetary spacecraft, especially lunar missions.

It had long been rumored that it also played a role in gathering intelligence on other Soviet spacecraft and had a connection to GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s communications and signals intelligence agency.

Jodrell Bank was truly unique during the first decade of the space age because, although it was a British facility that occasionally eavesdropped on Soviet spacecraft, the Soviet Union and its allies also sent researchers there and even asked for help in detecting their own spacecraft. . The observatory played a role in both Cold War competition and cooperation. But it also had a darker and more mysterious side.

The radio telescope once captured the Soviets on their own lunar mission, publicly releasing an image of a Soviet spacecraft before the Soviet government did so. They achieved this with the help of a photo scanner borrowed from a newspaper. Although Jodrell Bank’s role in eavesdropping on Soviet scientific spacecraft was publicly acknowledged during the Cold War, it was portrayed as a civilian effort. But it had long been rumored that it also played a role in gathering intelligence on other Soviet spacecraft and had a connection to GCHQ, the UK’s communications and signals intelligence agency, the equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA). ) from United States.

The Cold War Conversations Podcast has existed since 2018, with more than 330 episodes so far. It’s an oral history project hosted by Ian Sanders, who interviews a wide range of Cold War participants, from tank commanders to pilots to intelligence officers to spies to deserters to people who experienced the Cold War from different perspectives. unique. A recent episode focused on Jodrell Bank. In it, Sanders met with Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics and associate director of the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester. O’Brien took him through the non-public areas of the observatory and explained some of its history. Professor Bernard Lovell built the observatory in the post-war years, in part by collecting electronic equipment from Britain’s demobilized armed forces. He also obtained government funding to expand the observatory throughout the 1950s. O’Brien discussed how Jodrell Bank served as a nuclear attack warning station and conducted experiments with aircraft detecting radar.

As O’Brien led Sanders around the facility, he explained that there had long been rumors among staff that there was a secret GCHQ relationship with the telescope, but at most only three people knew of the arrangement, one of them being Lovell. There were tips for those who knew how to look for them. One was a logbook in a telecommunications room which indicated that a telephone line had been installed to Cheltenham, the location of GCHQ’s headquarters. There were also locked rooms and other architectural details that suggested that some secret activities took place there, although any such work would probably involve only a few people because it went unnoticed among the employees.

But then O’Brien told an interesting story. In the early 1980s, a large trailer appeared at Jodrell Bank. It had the name NASA on the side. But actually there were a lot of “A’s”, because this was a NSA trailer, not a NASA trailer. Inside was a sophisticated wide-frequency scanner designed to be connected to Jodrell Bank’s large antenna. It could listen to a wide range of frequencies and then closely analyze any signals of interest it detected.

Jodrell Bank was undoubtedly used to discover other Soviet spacecraft signals during the Cold War, although its role in this effort remains largely classified.

The NSA trailer was there to uncover what intelligence analysts have long called “the missing link.” When the Soviet Union began sending spacecraft to the Moon, the NSA – as well as GCHQ – began listening using several ground stations around the world, including a large deep space listening post established in Ethiopia in 1965, codenamed STONEHOUSE (see “Stonehouse: Deep space listen in the high desert,” The Space Review, May 8, 2023.) Although intelligence analysts could detect some signs of the Soviet lunar missions, they realized something was missing. The Soviets were publishing images of some of their lunar spacecraft that had not been collected by Jodrell Bank or Western intelligence stations. They were descending on a secret frequency. And if the Soviets were using it for planetary missions, they were possibly also using it in military spacecraft. Finding this frequency has proven incredibly difficult for Western eavesdroppers. Western intelligence agents even examined publicly displayed Soviet spacecraft to see if their antennas provided any clues about frequency. Intelligence analyst James Burke wrote about “the missing link” in a classified intelligence journal in 1978, and that article was declassified in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. (“The missing link”, Studies in Intelligence, vol. 22, winter 1978.)

According to O’Brien, the NSA used the special Jodrell Bank trailer to detect the missing link of a Soviet spacecraft. Nothing further is known about this, but presumably other Western intelligence sites began listening to this previously secret signal.

Jodrell Bank was undoubtedly used to discover other Soviet spacecraft signals during the Cold War, although its role in this effort remains largely confidential. Listen to the Cold War Conversations Podcast. You will almost certainly learn something.


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