Who Is More Reliable, NASA or NIMA?

I wouldn't have thought this was a tough choice. Given recent history, NASA's stock is rather low…which would make one think that the SIGINT folks, always the cream of the spy world in my book, ought to have the edge. But consider this tale of compartive evaluations of reconnaisance photos, Whatever Happened to Mars Polar Lander? U.S. Spy Agencies Might Know:

The loss of the Mars Polar Lander became a detective story that pitted photo analysts at a super-secret spy agency and NASA experts about the overall condition of the lost-to-Mars probe.

It's a saga of light and dark pixels, egos, and professional courtesy, and a report that never saw the light of day, until now.

In an early attempt to find the spacecraft, overhead search imagery of the MPL landing site was acquired by the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) system, carried by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor that had been orbiting the planet since 1997.

Both JPL as manager of the MPL mission, as well as Malin Space Science Systems, the primary contractor/operator of the MOC system, conducted additional imagery scans to look for the lander.

But locating MPL, or pieces of a wrecked spacecraft, proved inconclusive. Even if MPL sat on the surface intact it would have been tough to detect. The MOC system was right at the very limits of its abilities to clearly spot MPL hardware.

At NASA's request, a team from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) — recently renamed as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — carried out a detailed search of the primary MPL landing area utilizing MOC images and an array of high-tech analytical equipment.

Why NIMA? The agency is both a combat support as well as national intelligence agency whose mission is to provide timely, relevant and accurate geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, in support of our national security. The agency is an acclaimed leader in describing, assessing, and visually depicting physical features on Earth. In short, it makes use of such hush-hush tools as spy satellites.

NASA, in turn, reviewed the NIMA story — a nicely bound report, one that was complete with lots of Mars Global Surveyor imagery, other color pictures, drawings, circles and arrows throughout.

According to a source familiar with the report, and taking into account expert advice about the inner workings of Mars Global Surveyor's MOC system, NIMA got it “embarrassingly wrong.”

The suspect pixels probed by NIMA were identified as electronic noise in the MOC hardware. The NIMA experts didn't detect Mars Polar Lander, the source said, “they detected noise.”

The NIMA folks, of course, didn't agree with this assessment.

I have no idea who is right, but I'm curious now, and look forward to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) which might decide the dispute. If NIMA was really taken in by 'noise' it will definitely shake my faith in the part of the intelligence apparatus I always ranked miles above the CIA. [#INCLUDE joke about finding WMD's on Mars here.]

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