UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Magnum/ Mentor/ Orion



By © Charles P. Vick 2007 All Rights Reserved

06-27-28 ,-07

MAGNUM-ORION - SIGINT Spacecraft Series – (NRO/CIA/NSA - Program AFP-731)

Code name MAGNUM-ORION 1-3 was the successor to the RHYOLITE-AQUACADE spacecraft series the next in a long series of earth orbit NRO/CIA/NSA, SIGINT (signals intelligence) spacecraft used by the CIA and intelligence Community for a variety of mission. They were launched by the STS-51C and STS-33 Space Shuttle/IUS booster with a total of three MAGNUM-ORION 1-3 successful launches identified. The spacecraft were actually nothing more than CIA/NSA mission specific sophisticated earth orbit space based earth receiving stations operating over the entire emitted electro magnetic radio spectrum frequency range. The MAGNUM-ORION 1-3 spacecraft introduced the third larger unfurling dish structures “wrap-rib” large deployable bleached white gold colored mesh covered receiving dish antenna design of about 255 feet in diameter with a total spacecraft mass of about 5,953.5 pounds. MAGNUM-ORION’s first launch was January 24, 1985 and the subsequent launches of the MAGNUM-ORION 1-3 were on November 23, 1989, and its last launch was apparently on November 15, 1990.

The MAGNUM-ORION 1-3 series were designed to monitor and pick up from the ground and in flight electronic signals intelligence (ELINT), radio communications intelligence (COMINT) and radar emitters emissions intelligence (RADINT) in addition to the primary missile test telemetry intelligence (TELINT) acquisitions capabilities all coming under the general SIGINT heading. They were fully dedicated mission operations that were highly successful in acquiring SIGINT through the larger mission general SIGINT “wrap-rib” white gold colored mesh covered reflector dishes. Its primary mission was TELINT intercepts of Soviet missile flight test telemetry traffic across the former Soviet Union missile test ranges out into the Pacific Ocean.

The technology for these SIGINT spacecraft fulfilled need for larger more sophisticated systems able to do multiple missions at the same time. The technology for these SIGINT spacecraft were slow in coming on line development wise but later proved out highly successfully once the technology was perfected. Like any new technology program it had its issues that slowed its initial progress.

Each gravity gradient stabilized spacecraft was about 255 feet in diameter with the dish attached to gimbals for steering from the command, communication, control and intelligence, power bus. The MAGNIUM-ORION dish did not cover the entire visible surface of the earth but covered more than its CHALET/VORTEX predecessor and thus the dishes were presumable set on gimbals to monitor specific points or objects of interest such as ballistic missile flight test telemetry. This would thus require several spacecraft to accomplish this monitoring task over the full range of the ICBM’s flight test.

It is presumed that each spacecraft rear bus carried two solar arrays with one down link communications dish each. The large SIGINT spacecraft was carried into earth orbit by the STS Space Shuttle in its 60 foot long by 15 foot diameter payload bay. Part of the spacecraft which housed the forward bus mounted sophisticated receiving feed horns with log periodic antennas collecting the earth based signals reflected off the larger “Wrap-Ribbed” supported white gold mesh covered SIGINT dish. These log periodic antenna farms were also located just above spacecraft rear bus in the hub area.

Note: For further details of the Shuttle launch package see the accompanying illustration of the Payload arrangement and the Feed horn log periodic details.

It is not believed that this spacecraft series carried any early warning or sophisticated infrared sensors tracking sensors like those carried on the USAF based SIGINT satellites.

This spacecraft utilized the 9.5 foot diameter by 17 foot long two stage IUS to place the spacecraft on a geosynchronous transfer orbit that then became a elliptical near geosynchronous orbit once the IUS fired its second stage and later the spacecraft bus housed orbital maneuvering engine was fired to placed it in that kind of a GEO orbital position. They were operated at an inclination that was at approximately near 0 degrees with a geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) with a spacecraft life of seven to ten years. The CIA/NSA primarily utilized it for monitoring Soviet missile test flights operations telemetry traffic emissions.

The IUS rocket stage portion of the SIGINT packages carried the usual assortment of earth, horizon and solar sensors to orient the spacecraft but it did not remain attached to the spacecraft. The constellation of spacecraft was able to receive and send the data to several global ground stations via radio signal operated by NSA/CIA personnel. The data was then processed and analyzed at NSA headquarters for further analysis distribution to the CIA intelligence community. The spacecraft series cost rose from $750,000,000.00 each with a launch cost initially at $400,000,000.00 each.


 1. McDowell, Jonathan , U. S. Reconnaissance Satellites Programs, Part 2: Beyond Imaging, Quest, Vol. 4, No. 4.

2. Pike, Christopher Anson, “CANYON, RHYOLITE and AQUACADE,” Spaceflight, Vol. 37, November 1995 pp. 381-383.


Conceptual Magnum, Orion SIGINT Satellite Series

Shuttle Payload Bay Arrangement for Launch

How the SIGINT Satellite Receives its Signals

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list