Does the spy satellite called Moonpenny hold the key?

23 September 2007
The Express on Sunday
Gordon Thomas
Searchers in the sky

Madeleine's fate could be resolved by the giant golf ball-shaped objects towering over the windswept coast of North Yorkshire.  Almost a thousand miles from where the four-year-old was last seen alive in Portugal, the objects, known as radones, could answer in seconds the questions that have tantalised the world. But only Gordon Brown has the authority to mobilise the radones – the word means "stony ground" in ancient Saxon – at RAF Menwith Hill.

To do so would cost "at least £1million, and probably more, to realign the radones and the satellites to which they are linked", said an expert last night at GCHQ in Cheltenham, Britain's communications headquarters.

Each radone is coated in toughened Teflon to produce crystal clear images and is equipped with computers which can receive continuous messages and images from 54 satellites circling the world. Their ultra-powerful cameras can pick out the glint in a man's eyes or the smile on a child's lips.

Sources close to the GCHQ director, Sir David Pepper, have told the Sunday Express that the vast complex, employing more than 7,000 specialist technicians, could be "tasked" to use some of its annual budget of £600 million to find out whether Madeleine is dead or alive.

Under a joint UK-US agreement, GCHQ gathers electronic secret intelligence from Europe, Africa and Russia west of the Ural mountains. America's National Security Agency, NSA, covers the rest of the world. Each month, more than 17 billion messages are intercepted from commercial networks as they bounce their traffic around the globe.

Two systems would be used to try to locate Madeleine.

One is called Silkworth, the other Moonpenny. They are sophisticated enough to pick up conversations inside a building anywhere in the world.

Other systems can detect soil disturbance and, in coastal waters, detect objects on the sea floor. Former NSA director William Studeman confirmed that the capability to "search and find" that GCHQ shares with the NSA is "probably the largest processing software in the world".

Will it be used to finally bring an end to the search for Madeleine McCann?

Gordon Thomas is author of the forthcoming Inside British Intelligence, a sequel to his bestseller Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad.

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