Missile Defense Alarm System

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The Missile Defense Alarm System was an American system of 12 early-warning satellites that provided limited notice of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launches between 1960 and 1966. Originally intended to serve as a complete early-warning system working in conjunction with the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, cost and reliability concerns limited the project to a research and development role. Three of the system's 12 launches ended in failure, and the remaining nine satellites provided crude infrared early-warning coverage of the Soviet Union until the project was replaced by the Defense Support Program, which served as a successor program. MiDAS represented one element of the United States's first generation of reconnaissance satellites that also included the Corona and Samos series. Though MiDAS failed in its primary role as a system of infrared early-warning satellites, it pioneered the technologies needed in successor systems.


On October 4, 1957, from the Tyuratam range in the Kazakh SSR, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. The event, while a scientific triumph, also signified that the Soviet Union now had the capability to reach the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7, the missile that had launched Sputnik, could instead be tipped with a nuclear weapon, bringing the threat of a surprise nuclear Pearl Harbor-style attack on the United States. To give early warning of any Soviet attack, American and Canadian authorities agreed to build the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which would use radar to detect incoming missiles and give warning of any attack. However, this system was hampered by the limitations of radar. Due to the location of the Soviet Union on the opposite side of the Earth, the Soviet missile launch points were over the horizon from the radar stations and the stations could not detect the missiles immediately after launching. Only when the missiles had crossed the horizon would they be detected and word passed on.

Estimates at the time suggested that BMEWS would only give 10-25 minutes of warning in the event of an attack. MiDAS, as planned, would extend that warning time to 20-33 minutes, allowing extra time for precautions to be made and counter-attacking bombers to take off from their bases.[1] In addition, MiDAS would be able to confirm reports from BMEWS, thus reducing the chances of an accident.[1]


On March 16, 1955, the United States Air Force had officially ordered the development of an advanced reconnaissance satellite to provide continuous surveillance of “preselected areas of the earth” in order “to determine the status of a potential enemy’s war-making capability.”[2] The result of this order was the creation of a then-secret USAF program known as WS-117L, which controlled the development of the first generation of American reconnaissance satellites. These included the Corona series of observation satellites and the still-classified SAMOS. Lockheed Martin, which had been contracted to build the two series of satellites, suggested several other satellite programs to fill supporting roles, including a satellite that would use an infrared sensor and telescope to detect the heat produced by jet bombers and long-range missiles.[3] In response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the appearance of the ICBM threat, Subsystem G was added to WS-117L before the end of 1957.[4] With the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency {ARPA), Subsystem G was taken over by that organization and given the codename MiDAS in November 1958.[3]

In February 1959, ARPA submitted an initial project development plan to the Air Force. As defined in the initial proposal, MiDAS would use infrared sensors from high above the Soviet Union to detect missile launches and give early warning of an attack.[5] The plan called for a 10-satellite research and development program between November 1959 and May 1961. After that time, a full-scale operational system would be deployed.[6]

Because the information collected by the MiDAS satellites was extraordinarily time-sensitive, the designers of the system couldn't use the film-dropping technique pioneered by the Discoverer/Corona series of satellites. In that system, the cameras aboard the satellites used film canisters that physically reentered the atmosphere before being retrieved by aircraft in flight. The MiDAS satellites would instead beam their signals earthward via radio signals. Actual images wouldn't be transmitted due to the limited bandwidth available. Instead, the satellite would simply send notification that it had detected a launch as well as the time and location of the launch.

Multiple satellites would be needed to provide round-the-clock coverage of the Soviet Union. A rocket capable of reaching geostationary orbit had not yet been designed, and potentially would not be able to cover all the missile launch sites within the Soviet Union. Satellites in a polar orbit would be needed to detect launches from across the Soviet Union, but due to the nature of the polar orbit, each would have only a brief period of time above the Soviet Union. As the planned capabilities of the satellite changed during the design process, so did the plans for their deployment. A January 1959 plan recommended an operational constellation of twenty spacecraft operating at an altitude of 1,000 miles while a revised plan, produced later that year, envisioned a constellation of twelve spacecraft at 2,000-mile altitudes.[7]

Implementing a complete system, estimated in 1959, was put at between $200 million and $600 million ($1.35 billion to $4 billion in 2006 dollars[8]).[9] Because of this enormous cost and the fact that several "unanswered questions" remained, the scientific advisory council in charge of advising President Eisenhower on Early Warning systems recommended that a program of research be conducted but that final word on implementing a complete system be delayed for at least a year.[9]


MIDAS was at best a qualified success — early problems included mistaking sunlight reflected from clouds as an enemy missile launch. The W-17 infrared sensor proved unable to detect the initial heat plume of a missile through the Earth's atmosphere, and only with the introduction of the W-37 sensor was a launch detected from orbit. Even with this success, the MiDAS system was hampered by unsuccessful launches that destroyed satellites and killed any hope of round-the-clock coverage of the Soviet Union. In addition, the lack of a continuous power source such as a nuclear reactor or solar panels meant that the satellites' batteries were exhausted after a few short weeks in orbit.

Though the MiDAS program itself failed to meet expectations, it paved the way for the eventual introduction of the Defense Support Program system of satellites that were first launched in the 1970s and provide early warning of missile launches today. The DSP satellites currently in orbit are scheduled to be replaced by the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), but this program has been experiencing cost overruns and its future is in doubt.[10]

MiDAS launches

Mission chart from Astronautix[11].

Name Launch date Mass (kg) Launch site Launch vehicle Inclination (deg) NSSDC ID Comments
Midas 1 Feb. 26, 1960 2,025 Cape Canaveral LV-3A Atlas-Agena A -------- MIDAS1 Failure: Second stage failed to separate.
Midas 2 May 24, 1960 2,300 Cape Canaveral LV-3A Atlas-Agena A 33.00 1960-006A Missile Defense Alarm System. Test launch with W-17 sensor.
Discoverer 19 Dec. 20, 1960 1,060 Vandenberg Thor-Agena 83.40 1960-019A Tested IR sensors for Midas program; did not carry camera or film capsule.
Discoverer 21 Feb. 18, 1961 1,110 Vandenberg Thor-Agena B 80.60 1961-006A Tested IR sensors for Midas program; did not carry camera or film capsule.
Midas 3 July 12, 1961 1,600 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B 91.20 1961-018A Missile Defense Alarm System.
Midas 4 Oct. 21, 1961 1,800 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B 86.70 1961-028A Missile Defense Alarm System. Deployed subsatellites.
Midas 5 Apr. 9, 1962 1,860 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B 86.70 1962-010A Missile Defense Alarm System.
ERS 3 Dec. 17, 1962 Unknown Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- -------- Launch failed.
Midas 6 Dec. 17, 1962 2,000 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- 1963-014A Missile Defense Alarm System. Carried ERS-3, ERS-4 subsatellites. Launch failed.
ERS 4 Dec. 17, 1962 Unknown Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- -------- Launch failed.
Midas 7 May 9, 1963 2,000 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B 87.30 1963-030A MIDAS 7 was the first operational MIDAS mission and the first equipped with the W-37 sensor. During its six weeks of operation, MIDAS 7 recorded nine US ICBM launches, including the first missile launch ever detected from space.
ERS 7 June 12, 1963 Unknown Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- -------- Launch failed.
ERS 8 June 12, 1963 Unknown Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- -------- Launch failed.
Midas 8 June 12, 1963 2,000 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B -------- -------- Missile Defense Alarm System. Carried ERS-7, ERS-8 subsatellites. Launch failed.
Midas 9 July 19, 1963 2,000 Point Arguello LV-3A Atlas-Agena B 88.40 -------- Missile Defense Alarm System. Did not eject ERS 10 subsatellite.
Midas 10 June 9, 1966 2,000 Vandenberg SLV-3 Atlas-Agena D 90.00 1966-051A Missile Defense Alarm System. Left in transfer orbit.
Midas 11 Aug. 19, 1966 2,000 Vandenberg SLV-3 Atlas-Agena D 89.70 1966-077A Missile Defense Alarm System.
Midas 12 Oct. 5, 1966 2,000 Vandenberg SLV-3 Atlas-Agena D 89.80 1966-089A Missile Defense Alarm System.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Draft of a Report on MIDAS", Jack Ruina, DARPA. November 1, 1961. Accessed November 19, 2007.
  2. ^ Mark Erickson, Into the Unknown Together - The DOD, NASA, and Early Spaceflight. 1-58566-140-6
  3. ^ a b "Space-Based Early Warning: From MIDAS to DSP to SBIRS" Jeffery Richelson, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 235. November 9, 2007. Accessed November 14, 2007.
  4. ^ Jeffrey T. Richelson, America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence, KS.: University Press of Kansas, 1999), pgs. 8-9.
  5. ^ "W-37 Infrared Early Warning Sensor" National Air and Space Museum, October 18, 1999. Accessed November 9, 2007.
  6. ^ "Draft of a Report on MIDAS", Jack Ruina, DARPA. November 1, 1961, p. IV-1. Accessed November 19, 2007.
  7. ^ N.W. Watkins, "The MIDAS Project: Part I Strategic and Technical Origins and Political Evolution 1955-1963," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 50, 1997, pp. 215-224.
  8. ^ Results obtained from the Inflation Calculator
  9. ^ a b "Report of the Early Warning Panel" The President's Science Advisory Committee, March 13, 1959. Accessed November 14, 2007.
  10. ^ "Space-Based Infrared System Low at Risk of Missing Initial Deployment Date", U.S. General Accounting Office. February 2001. Accessed November 14, 2007.
  11. ^ Wade, Mark, Encyclopedia Astronautica Midas