Satellites in wrong orbits

August 08, 2001

AMERICA'S spy satellites are not in the orbits the Pentagon says they are, according to a respected space analyst. The errors will add to concerns over George W. Bush's plans to place weapons in space. If today's satellite orbits cannot be trusted, opponents reason, how will we verify the numbers of future space-based anti-missile lasers and anti-satellite weapons?

The 1975 UN Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space requires nations to maintain a registry of objects they launch, and to provide the UN with copies. But Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has found several discrepancies in the UN data. "Suspicious mistakes date back as early as the 1970s," he told New Scientist.

"The US is not in compliance. The 1989 launch of military satellite 1989-72A was never registered with the UN," McDowell says. And the discrepancies have become worse recently: correct orbits are listed for only two of the ten classified satellites the US launched in 1999 and 2000, he says. McDowell says three listed orbits are not those the satellites finally slotted into, while another four are wrong for other reasons, such as listing the orbit of another object launched at the same time. The remaining discrepancy is simply a typographical error.

The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs has confirmed that the Pentagon's data is incorrect, but says it can't do anything about it. A spokesman for US Space Command, which tracks nearly 9000 orbiting objects from its base deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, says the US "is in full compliance with the convention". According to the treaty, each nation can determine "the content of each registry and the conditions under which it is maintained", he says. He offered no comment on the orbital discrepancies.

Unfortunately, the UN registry relies on a treaty that allows long delays in providing data, and does not require nations to give final orbits. "In fact, they mostly provide only the initial orbit," said Petr Lala, research chief for the UN office, which is aware of McDowell's findings.

The UN's outer space convention was intended to identify the owners of all satellites, in case any posed hazards or caused damage. Governments want to know the orbits of other objects so they can be sure no one is trying to intercept their own satellites, says Charles Vick of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC.

Although US Space Command says its actions fall within the letter of the treaty, McDowell says: "It's certainly violating the spirit of an international commitment."

Vick suspects that the Pentagon hopes to make it harder to evade surveillance from space by concealing the orbits of its spy satellites--but Russia and China have their own tracking systems, and amateur astronomers post orbits on the Web.

"It's silly. These things are among the brightest objects in the sky," says John Pike director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based policy group. He says the Pentagon has grown arrogant, believing "we won the cold war, we can do whatever we want".
-end-
Author: Jeff Hecht, Boston New Scientist issue: 11 August 2001

Please mention New Scientist as the source of this story and, if publishing online, please carry a hyperlink to: http://www.newscientist.com

New Scientist

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