TV from Vostok

Sven Grahn

"Snooping on Space Pictures"

In an article in the March 1997 issue of Spaceflight (Vol.39, No.3, p.100) Dwayne Day refers to a paper "Snooping on Space Pictures" by Henry G. Plaster (1).

Let me quote from H G Plaster's original text:

" .......Sputniks 5 and 6, launched respectively on 19 August and 1 December 1960, both transmitted signals on 83 megacycles which were initially reported by field Elint operators and later confirmed through detailed analysis to be video transmissions. Soviet announcements that the dog passengers on these satellites were being watched while in orbit by means of a 'radio-television' system spurred on analytical efforts to demodulate this new type of signal, and before long CIA technical analysts did succeed in producing pictures from Sputnik 6's recorded signals. These substantiated the Soviet claim of having developed a special television transmission system which could provide instantaneous reporting on the behaviour of animal or human passengers aboard a Soviet spacecraft.

More important to intelligence in early 1961, however, was the establishement of a capability to determine as soon after launch as possible whether the Soviets had successfully orbited the first man in space, a feat they were expected to attempt at any moment. The National Security Agency undertook to design and produce special field collection equipment that would present oscilloscope pictures while the transmission was being received. Several such sets were produced on a priority basis, and the first two were sent to Elint sites in Alaska and Hawaii.

Demodulation of video transmission from Sputnik 9 (9 March 1961) and Sputnik 10 (25 March 1961) substantiated the Soviet announcement that each of these single-orbit flights carried a dog passenger. Then on 12 April 1961 Sputnik 11 was launched, and 83-megacycle transmissions were detected twenty minutes later as the spacecraft passed over Alaska. Only 58 minutes after launch NSA reported that real-time readout of signals clearly showed a man and showed him moving. This before Gagarin had completed his historic 108-minute flight, intelligence components had technical confirmation that a Soviet cosmonaut was in orbit and that he was alive." (see picture above right, gracefully provided by Dwayne Day).

The station in Alaska

What can we make out of all this? Let us start with the purported signals in Alaska. What station could possibly be referred to? Let us assume that the NSA has a station at the island of Shemya where we know there is a radar installation for tracking launches of missiles and launch vehicles out of Russia. The table below show when Vostok would have been over the horizon at Shemya. Vostok was launched at 0607 UT, so the table shows that Plaster's assertion that TV signals were detected about 20 minutes after launch agrees well with placing the NSA ELINT station at Shemya. The phrasing in Plaster's paper seems to indicate that the picture was not read out successfully, only detected.

SITE: Shemya (Lat: 52.45 Long: 174.05)
Date Time UT Latitude
(deg N)
(deg E)
Illumination Range
1961 Apr 12 06:26:00 60.28 156.51 200 Sun 1417 315.9  1.9
1961 Apr 12 06:27:00 57.97 162.80 203 Sun 977 315.1 7.8 
1961 Apr 12 06:28:00  55.35 168.25 207 Sun 548 312.6 19.9 
1961 Apr 12 06:29:00 52.51 172.96 211 Sun 224 275.9  69.9
1961 Apr 12 06:30:00 49.49 177.05  214 Sun 451  146.2 26.6 
1961 Apr 12 06:31:00 46.33 -179.3 218 Sun 871 142.4  10.8
1961 Apr 12 06:32:00 43.06 -176.2 222 Sun 1309  141.4 4.0 

A station in Tierra del Fuego or the Antarctic?

The sentence in Plaster's paper "Only 58 minutes after launch NSA reported that real-time readout of signals clearly showed a man and showed him moving", is slightly ambiguous. Was the report from NSA sent 58 minutes after launch or was the real-time readout made 58 minutes after launch. Let us assume the latter: Where was the second station placed? The readout of TV signals was supposed to have occured 58 minutes after launch. This would be at 0607 + 58 = 0705 UT. Where was Vostok 1 then? Orbital analysis and the map above shows that Vostok had just come above 5 degrees elevation at Cape Horn at that moment. Could there have been a station at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego? Perhaps! The maximum elevation angle there was only 13 degrees.This is enough, but a bit low!

There is a U.S.Antarctic station at a place called Palmer. From a pure geographical point of view it is ideally placed! The ground track of an object launched out of Baikonur into a 65o orbit goes straight over the Palmer base. But, most probably the "58 minutes" refer to when the report was received. Thus, either Shemya or Hawaii picked up the signal that showed Gagarin in his capsule.

Can we find the Vostok TV antennas?

Where on the Vostok were the TV transmitter antennas located? The sketch below is of Soviet origin and has been in my files for more than ten years. I do not know where it comes from, but the translated caption clearly points at the four "fat" antennas at the back of the service module. Each of these antennas are about a meter long, which, if a quarter-wavelenth, indicates 4 meters or about 75 MHz frequency. The antennas are "fat" giving them broadband characteristics. In this way they could cover the 83 MHz TV frequency and possibly other frequencies. It is possible that the TV transmitter also carried telemetry, but I think that there were separate telemetry transmitters, probably in the 61-76 MHz band. See also the article Radio systems of Soviet/Russian manned spacecraft.
  1. Transmission of operational telemetry from onboard the spacecraft ("Signal")
  2. Reception of terrestrial broadcasting stations
  3. Transmission of telemetry and televisionimages from onboard the spacecraft
  4. Measurement of the orbit of the spacecraft
  5. Two-way telephony and telegraphy shortwave communications
  6. Command reception
  7. Two-way VHF telephony
  8. Transmission of operational telemetry and telegraphy information during the landing phase ("Signal")

References and footnotes

  1. Henry G. Plaster, "Snooping on Space Pictures",  Fall 1964 issue of Studies in Intelligence, found in RG 263, Entry 400, "Articles From Studies in Intelligence, 1955-1992", National Archives and Records Administration.

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