Zooming-In On Satellite Calibration Targets in the Arizona Desert

Zooming-In On Satellite Calibration Targets in the Arizona Desert

These optical targets in the Arizona desert were built for calibrating the cameras of a spy satellite network called the Corona program. Similar to the huge bar codes found across the U.S. southwest, also used for testing high-altitude cameras, these targets are glyphs meant to be seen from the sky: fixed points of focus and orientation for classified machines soaring through space far above.

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Arizona Still Holds Scars From The Cold War Space Race

Arizona Still Holds Scars From The Cold War Space Race

Sitting out in the open despite their clandestine origins, the Corona Satellite Calibration Targets that dot the Arizona desert are not hidden, but their true purpose was not revealed for years after their installation.

The Corona spy satellite system was launched throughout the 1960's as part of a program designed for the United States to peer on the Soviet Union, China, and any other enemy or ally that might come under suspicion. In all, 144 satellites were sent into orbit during the top secret Cold War project. After taking their pictures, the orbiters would jettison their film which would float back to Earth and be collected by a plane in mid-air (a system which led to a number of crashed canisters).

Arizona Still Holds Scars From The Cold War Space Race

Given the technology of the time, the camera's need a system of fixed points on which to focus their lenses and thus the Corona calibration targets were built in the desolate Arizona desert. Little more than large concrete crosses, poured to be flush with the ground, the targets were only visible if one walked up to them or passed over them from a great height, like space. The crosses were roughly arranged into a 16 x 16 grid so that the satellites could orient themselves and focus correctly before actually spying on America's Cold War interests. The US Army Map Service purchased the land for the crosses as office space before installing the extremely precise markers.

When the Corona project ended in 1972, a number of the crosses were demolished but a few of them still remain scattered throughout the desert. Now the calibration points simply act as so many Cold War holdovers reminding people of an especially paranoid chapter in American history.

Image Credits: Google Maps, Wikipedia


Written by Eric Grundhauser, this is a slightly modified version of an article that originally ran on Atlas Obscura, the leading guide to the wondrous and curious places across the earth. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook!