It Spied on Soviet Atomic Bombs. Now It’s Solving Ecological Mysteries.

Not being able to see the forest for the trees isn’t just a colloquialism for Mihai Nita — it’s a professional disadvantage.

“When I go into the forest, I can only see 100 meters around me,” said Dr. Nita, a forest engineer at Transylvania University of Brasov, in Romania.

Dr. Nita’s research interest — the history of Eastern Europe’s forests — depends on a vaster, and more removed, vantage than eyes can provide.

“You have to see what happened in the ’50s, or even a century ago,” Dr. Nita said. “We needed an eye in the sky.”

Early in the Cold War, the United States struggled to acquire military intelligence on the Soviet Union — a vast enemy spanning 11 time zones and one-sixth of the planet’s land surface.

Then, in August 1960, the first successful Corona flight made eight daytime passes over the Soviet Union. When the camera had used all 20 pounds of its film, the satellite released its film return capsule from a 100-mile altitude. The package hit the atmosphere, deployed a parachute and was scooped up, midair, by an Air Force plane northwest of Hawaii. It became the first photography ever recovered from orbit.

“They had no idea if these systems would work,” said Compton Tucker, a senior earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s really very ingenious.”

Over time, Corona cameras and film improved in quality. With an archive of almost one million images, the program detected Soviet missile sites, warships, naval bases and other military targets. “They counted every rocket in the Soviet Union,” said Volker Radeloff, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin — Madison whose lab has used the images in its studies. “These images kept the Cold War cold.”

After 145 missions and 120 returned usable film canisters, the multi-billion-dollar Corona program was decommissioned in 1972 in favor of satellites that could beam their imagery back to Earth in digital format.

When, in 1995, the spy program’s archival images were declassified, some appeared on the front page of The Times.

Government officials were motivated to release the images, in part, because of their anticipated value for environmental scientists.

“These kinds of photographs,” Vice President Gore said at the time, “are what make today’s event so exciting to those who study the process of change on our Earth.”

Since then, the program has remained relatively unknown to the public. “It’s the best military, taxpayer-funded success that no one knows about,” said Jason Ur, a Harvard University archaeologist who regularly depends on Corona images for his research.

One reason for their relative obscurity is that scientists who wanted to use the images have needed to overcome a variety of obstacles. For example, while the pictures have been declassified, it costs researchers $30 to digitize a single image. Dr. Radeloff said there are “gobs and gobs of data,” but that most images are “still rolled in film and have not yet been scanned.”

“In a lot of cases, they lead us to landscapes that are gone, that don’t exist anymore” Dr. Ur said. “Corona is like a time machine for us.”

In 2013, Kevin Leempoel, a biologist, set out to retrace the historical boundaries of mangroves in Zhanjiang Mangrove National Nature Reserve in China’s south. Records were spotty before the 1980s, when global satellites began regularly documenting the planet’s surface from space. “There was this big gap — we didn’t really have any other time point,” said Dr. Leempoel, now with Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

By examining black-and-white Corona images and marking the forest’s outline by hand, Dr. Leempoel demonstrated in 2013 that human activity had driven mangrove cover down by more than a third from 1967 to 2009. That kind of finding would have been impossible without the historical photos, he said.

“In ecology, we’re all faced with the same issue: We start to have good data in the ’80s or ’90s at best,” Dr. Leempoel said. “The difference between today and then is not huge. But compared to a century ago, the difference is gigantic.”

Still, Corona data remains relatively untapped by scientists. Only 5 percent — about 90,000 images out of 1.8 million total — of the country’s ever-growing backlog of declassified spy satellite photography has been scanned so far, said Dr. Radeloff. “It hasn’t been used that much yet. We’re at a cusp,” he said.

With climate change and other global ecosystem transformations, it’s never been more important to record and piece together long-term environmental timelines, Dr. Muntenau said: “Everything we do leaves a footprint. That impact might only show up decades later.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*