NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #39: Osprey (Cover #2) - Menwith Hill

Miranda Chase #13 launches 9/26

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Last week we delved into the Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. A very strange bird indeed.

This week I thought I'd nerd out a bit on those white "golf balls" in the background.

These are radomes (radar domes) that are transparent to radio waves but protect the radar dish from the weather and, far more importantly for this particular site, where they're pointing.

Yeah, that's a real "Huh" moment, isn't it? They're aimed at the sky, right? If you drive by your local cable company's office, you're likely to spot dozens of radio dishes aimed upward. They're doing the same thing that a small rooftop Dish network antenna is doing, receiving satellite broadcast television signals to feed out over your Xfinity or whoever's cable to your home.
These are a little different.

The Three Sites

There are three stations that are very different. The NSA (National Security Administration), one of the USA's most clandestine intelligence agencies, has three special listening posts around the world, each with dozens (as in thirty or more) satellite dishes aimed at the sky.
  • Pine Gap, Alice Springs, Australia - right near the center of Australia protected by over a thousand kilometers of Outback in every direction. (
  • Aerospace Data Facility-Colorado (ADF-C) Buckley Space Force Base, Aurora, CO, USA - right near the center of the US, protected from eavesdropping by ocean-based vessels again by over a thousand miles (we're the only country still using the English system after all) of continent. (
  • Royal Air Force Menwith Hill, Harrogate, UK - in a valley in the Yorkshire Dales. (
  • There are also two lesser NRO stations at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and Fort Belvoir, VA.

Osprey is largely set at Menwith Hill.

Top Secret Happenings

These three stations (with a little help from the two sidekicks) are run by a combination of the NSA, the NRO (the US intelligence agency with the highest budget, as they're responsible for building, launching, and operating all the spy satellites), and the CIA.

They are the eyes and ears of the USA from space. If a terrorist leader is targeted with a drone strike, there's a near certainty that one of these three "NSA Listening Posts" was involved in monitoring the target, confirming identification, creating a target package for official approval, and perhaps even action when time is too short.

There's, of course, almost nothing public about these stations. Even the big Edward Snowden scandal released little more than the name and general purpose of these places. There's a rather unimpressive tell-all book: Pine Gap: Close to God's Ear: NSA Eavesdropping Memoirs by David Rosenberg. Sorry, it deserves the three-star rating it has earned from all of ten reviewers (of course, if he wrote anything more clearly he'd probably be in prison now).

There is an Australian 2018 television series, Pine Gap. Of course, as it was absolutely lovely, it was cancelled after a single season. Well worth watching just for the show's sake if you can track it down.

What They Listen To

This is where it gets really interesting.

I say "spy satellites" and most folks will imagine those big cameras in the sky. And yep, we have at least six of these up there ( These are basically Hubble Telescopes tuned to look down instead of up. In fact, there's a rumor that the Hubble is actually a leftover frame for a Kennen that the military gave them and that's the real reason they changed from the originally planned three-meter mirror to two-point-four meters (because that's what the Kennens used at the time). There's another rumor that's what was wrong with the original mirror of the Hubble, that the focal length was wrong because they didn't change it from orbit-to-Earth's surface before launching it to look at the stars.

This is only a tiny portion of what's up there. Need proof? Count the radomes in the pictures below, but don't trust your eyes. Pine Gap is said to have 38 radomes and over 800 employees. In 2019, Menwith Hill added three more to have 37 radomes. I didn't easily find a report on ADF-Colorado. You don't need that many dishes to track six imaging satellites.

RAF Menwith Hill

Pine Gap


So What Else Is Up There

Think about your cell phone. It radiates a signal out to the nearest cell tower. Ten to fifteen miles with a clear field of view gets you a nice signal. Twenty-five miles can still work if there aren't a lot of buildings, trees, or mountains springing up like crazed dandelions. It's all a question of power. A handheld satellite phone is less about all the technology inside and more about getting enough signal aloft for the little Iridium satellites to pick up. The Iridium satellites have a trio of receiving panels about 1m x 2m.

Now let's look at an NRO monitoring satellite. Here we get off into the land of the rumored or even the bizarre. The diagram below offers a (fuzzy) view of the growth of US monitoring satellites. The one that may be the latest, the Trumpet ( is believed to have a radio dish about 150m in diameter. That's roughly 9,000 times more antenna than the sole Iridium antenna aimed in your direction that can easily pick up a handheld satellite phone signal and keep track of it as it swings from horizon to horizon in seven minutes.

Generation of radio satellites with the 1990s-era Trumpet at the right

"And you, Mister Terrorist, think they can't overhear any type of transmission?"

Massive computers at each site chew through all that noise, looking for aggressors, potential aggressors, and who knows what else. You can also bet that they have something aloft to monitor and decode other nation's satellites as well.
Do I feel threatened or safer because of these sites? Do I wish we didn't need them? Sure. But personally? They let me sleep a little better at night.

And that's where Miranda is going this time, we can only hope that she survives.

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