Missile Defense Alarm System

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MIDAS Infrared Sensor

The Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS) 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 attack the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The R-7, the booster rocket that launched Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, could be loaded instead with a hydrogen bomb, bringing the threat of a surprise nuclear Pearl Harbor-style attack on the United States and Canada. To give an early warning of any Soviet sneak ICBM attack, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Denmark (with the authority over Greenland, where the main radar station built at Thule, Greenland) agreed to build the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). This system would use radar to detect incoming ICBM warheads and give about 20 minutes of warning of an ICBM attack.

However, this system was hampered by the inherent limitations of radar systems and the curvature of the Earth. Due to the location of the Soviet Union on the other side of the Northern Hemisphere, the potential Soviet ICBM sites were thousands of miles over the horizon from the BMEWS radar stations that were under construction at Thule and Point Barrow, Alaska (and later on, in Scotland), and the BMEWS stations, as huge as they are, could not detect the ICBM warheads immediately after their launching. Only when the warheads had risen above the horizon could they be detected and warnings passed on by the U.S. Air Force.

Accurate calculations had already shown that the BMEWS system would give just ten to 25 minutes of warning in the case of an ICBM attack. The MIDAS system, as planned, would extend this warning time to about 30 minutes, giving the extra time needed for all of the Strategic Air Command's nuclear-armed heavy bombers to take off from their air bases, and hence proving to the Soviet government that it could not destroy these bombers in a sneak attack. Hence, the Soviets would be deterred from launching such an attack by a valid threat of nuclear retaliation.[1] In addition, the MIDAS system should have been able to confirm radar detections from BMEWS of a thermonuclear attack, hence reducing the chances of an accidental nuclear false alarm from the radar system.[1]

Development and Costs[edit]

On March 16, 1955, the U.S. Air Force had 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 satellite. The company that was to become the Lockheed-Martin Corporation which had been hired to design, develop, and manufacture the two series of satellites, suggested several other satellite programs to fill supporting roles, including a satellite that would use infrared sensors and a telescope to detect the heat produced by heavy bombers and ICBMs.[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 ICBM launches and give early warning of a thermonuclear 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 could not use the film-canister dropping system that had been pioneered by the Discoverer/Corona/Samos series of reconnaissance satellites. In that system, the cameras aboard the satellites used photographic film capsules that physically re-entered the atmosphere before being retrieved mid-air by a military airplane. The MIDAS satellites would instead have to transmit their warning signals earthward via radio waves. Actual infrared images would not be transmitted due to the limited RF channel capacity that was available then. Instead, the satellite would simply send radio messages that it had detected a suspected missile launch as well as the time and location of the launch.

Multiple MIDAS satellites would be needed to provide round-the-clock coverage of the huge landmass of the Soviet Union. A booster rocket capable of sending a satellite into geostationary orbit had not yet been developed, and one or a few of these might not be able to cover all the possible ICBM launch sites within Russia, especially in the far north near the Arctic Circle. Satellites in polar orbits 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 plan completed in January 1959 recommended a constellation of twenty MIDAS satellites orbiting 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 Dwight D. 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]

In FY1959, ARPA spent US $22.8 million (inflation adjusted US$ 182.6 million in 2013) on MIDAS, and in FY1960, ARPA and Air Force a combined sum of US $94.9 million (inflation adjusted US$748.8 million in 2013).[10]


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.

MiDAS launches[edit]

Mission chart from Astronautix[11] and [12]
NameLaunch dateMass (kg)Launch siteLaunch vehicleInclination (deg)NSSDC IDComments
Midas 1Feb. 26, 19602,025Cape CanaveralLV-3A Atlas-Agena A--------MIDAS1Failure: Second stage failed to separate.
Midas 2May 24, 19602,300Cape Canaveral[13]LV-3A Atlas-Agena A33.001960-006AMissile Defense Alarm System. Test launch with W-17 sensor.
Discoverer 19Dec. 20, 19601,060VandenbergThor-Agena83.401960-019ATested IR sensors for Midas program; did not carry camera or film capsule.
Discoverer 21Feb. 18, 19611,110VandenbergThor-Agena B80.601961-006ATested IR sensors for Midas program; did not carry camera or film capsule.
Midas 3July 12, 19611,600Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B91.201961-018AMissile Defense Alarm System.
Midas 4Oct. 21, 19611,800Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B86.701961-028AMissile Defense Alarm System. Deployed subsatellites.
Midas 5Apr. 9, 19621,860Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B86.701962-010AMissile Defense Alarm System.
ERS 3Dec. 17, 1962UnknownPoint ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B----------------Launch failed.
Midas 6Dec. 17, 19622,000Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B--------1963-014AMissile Defense Alarm System. Carried ERS-3, ERS-4 subsatellites. Launch failed.
ERS 4Dec. 17, 1962UnknownPoint ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B----------------Launch failed.
Midas 7May 9, 19632,000Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B87.301963-030AMIDAS 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 7June 12, 1963UnknownPoint ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B----------------Launch failed.
ERS 8June 12, 1963UnknownPoint ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B----------------Launch failed.
Midas 8June 12, 19632,000Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B----------------Missile Defense Alarm System. Carried ERS-7, ERS-8 subsatellites. Launch failed.
Midas 9July 19, 19632,000Point ArguelloLV-3A Atlas-Agena B88.40--------Missile Defense Alarm System. Did not eject ERS 10 subsatellite.
Midas 10June 9, 19662,000VandenbergSLV-3 Atlas-Agena D90.001966-051AMissile Defense Alarm System. Left in transfer orbit.
Midas 11Aug. 19, 19662,000VandenbergSLV-3 Atlas-Agena D89.701966-077AMissile Defense Alarm System.
Midas 12Oct. 5, 19662,000VandenbergSLV-3 Atlas-Agena D89.801966-089AMissile Defense Alarm System.

Photo gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ "Chronology of Air Force space activities". National Reconnaissance Office. 
  11. ^ Wade, Mark, Encyclopedia Astronautica Midas
  12. ^ R. Cargill Hall. Missile Defense Alarm: The Genesis of Space-based Infrared Early Warning. Space and Missile Systems Center, 1988. Accessed: 2009-05-30
  13. ^ Video: Cataclysm. Volcano, Tidal Waves, Devastate Pacific Area, 1960/05/27 (1960). Universal Newsreel. 1960. Retrieved February 22, 2012.