The Undergrad Who Found China's Nuclear Arsenal

What A Hobby

A couple of weeks ago, word arrived that 120 new missile silos had been discovered in the desert of Northern China. While the press made much of this evidence that China is busy expanding its nuclear weapons program, they did not look at who found the silos and how he did it.

As it happens, the silos were spotted by Decker Eveleth, an undergrad at Reed College. He spent weeks poking around on satellite imagery until he happened upon the silos’ distinctive inflatable dome coverings. (Which, in turn, has led some people to describe them as “bouncy houses of death.”)

In what I believe is his only interview about the incident, Eveleth told me about his process, and we covered it here in a larger story about all the goings on in the private space industry and what is now possible in Low Earth Orbit.

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As we explain in the piece . . .

The swath of land Eveleth decided to search stretches across thousands of miles of Chinese desert. Until very recently, hardly any satellite images would exist for this territory. Imaging satellites are costly and rare commodities, and they’re generally focused on areas of high-interest, not empty, arid land. Planet Labs, however, created a new kind of small, low-cost imaging satellite and put up so many of them that it can take multiple pictures of every spot on Earth, every day. In this case, Planet had years’ worth of pictures of the area in question, and Eveleth was ready, willing and able to scour them pixel-by-pixel. 

Eveleth created a gridded map and started moving along it from mid-May until June 27th, when he finally spotted a collection of inflatable domes. Previous sites had maybe a couple of dozen structures, but this one had 120. Not only that, Eveleth could go back in time through the images and see a play-by-play of the methods used to clear and construct the site. “We knew that it was a big deal,” Eveleth says. “There’s a very special kind of excitement that goes into this, knowing that you’re the first to find something.” 

At 8 a.m.on the 27th, Lewis and Eveleth contacted Planet to see if they could use a larger breed of their satellites to take even higher-resolution pictures of the area with the domes. Planet could.

Over the next day, Planet’s engineers sent radio signals from their ground stations on Earth to their satellite constellations. The computers onboard the machines received the signals, and the satellites turned on machinery known as reaction wheels to change their positions and orient themselves better toward the target. While traveling at 4.7 miles per second, the satellites then took rapid fire shots of the desert. Radios transmitted the images back to Earth where they were decrypted and then processed by Planet’s software. At 8:46 a.m. on the 28th, Lewis and Eveleth were able to log in to Planet’s service and see not just the domes but also trenches, for communications cables, leading out from underground facilities where the military likely has its launch operations. 

In early July, Lewis went to the press and stories about the China missile site soon flooded onto the internet. The State Department dubbed the discovery of such a major weapons build-up as “concerning.” Chinese language reports dismissed the images as the work of amateur sleuths and said they’d actually discovered a wind farm under construction. Although that story became harder to back as yet more images arrived from another satellite start-up called Capella Space, which has imaging systems based on a special type of radar. It could show liquid runoff coming out of the domes and a series of metallic structures more common for weapons than wind. 

When the U.S. wanted to do similar work in the late 1950s to check on the Soviet weapons stockpile, it fired up a clandestine effort known as Corona. This undertaking required rockets to carry satellites into orbit, which then took photos and dropped their film canisters back to Earth where they were, rather incredibly, caught in mid-air by a plane. It took about a decade of trial and error around launches, picture taking and recovery and some astonishing engineering by America’s top scientists and companies were needed to figure out how to do all this right. Ultimately, hundreds of people analyzed the top secret photos to try and find Soviet missile silos. In the case of Eveleth, he poked around on his laptop when he found the time, and any one of us could do the same. “It used to be that the government had satellites, and we didn’t,” says Lewis. “Now they have slightly better satellites. Okay, that’s nice for you, but it doesn’t really matter.”

The full story in Bloomberg Businessweek puts this discovery in the context of the booming private space industry. Case in point, I recently wrote about Planet Labs’ move to go public, while valued at $2.8 billion.

And, let’s not forget that down in New Zealand, is Peter Beck, the Southern Hemisphere’s curly-haired version of Elon Musk. His company Rocket Lab has already flown satellites into orbit dozens of times and is expanding its arsenal of space-faring machines with missions to the Moon and Venus on tap. Beck is an engineering savant, but, if ever there was an example of what advances in materials and software combined with talent and determination have made possible, it’s him. Having never attended university, Beck taught himself the skills needed to build rockets in a shed at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island and during an apprenticeship at a maker of home appliances. He then created and funded a rocket company in a country that had to craft an entire space legal framework from scratch because it had never considered the possibility of such a thing as Rocket Lab existing. 

Elsewhere in aerospace land, I discovered that Robert Downey Jr. is funding a secret start-up that thinks it can make drones and electric aircraft silent.

As Miracleman once said, “Oh Earth, Look up!”