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, a Washington-based policy group. He says the Pentagon has grown arrogant, believing "we won the cold war, we can do whatever we want".
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:

New Scientist

Related Satellites Articles from Brightsurf:

Satellites have drastically changed how we forecast hurricanes
The powerful hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900, killing an estimated 8,000 people and destroying more than 3,600 buildings, took the coastal city by surprise.

Spotting air pollution with satellites, better than ever before
Researchers from Duke University have devised a method for estimating the air quality over a small patch of land using nothing but satellite imagery and weather conditions.

New patented invention stabilizes, rotates satellites
Many satellites are in space to take photos. But a vibrating satellite, like a camera in shaky hands, can't get a sharp image.

Satellite broken? Smart satellites to the rescue
The University of Cincinnati is developing robotic networks that can work independently but collaboratively on a common task.

Combining satellites, radar provides path for better forecasts
Every minute counts when it comes to predicting severe weather.

Satellites are key to monitoring ocean carbon
Satellites now play a key role in monitoring carbon levels in the oceans, but we are only just beginning to understand their full potential.

New safer, inexpensive way to propel small satellites
A team at Purdue University has developed a new safer and inexpensive way to propel small satellites.

New developments with Chinese satellites over the past decade
To date, 17 Chinese self-developed FengYun (FY) meteorological satellites have been launched, which are widely applied in weather analysis, numerical weather forecasting and climate prediction, as well as environment and disaster monitoring.

First detection of rain over the ocean by navigation satellites
In order to analyse climate change or provide information about natural hazards, it is important to gather knowledge about the rain.

Earth's dust cloud satellites confirmed
A team of Hungarian astronomers and physicists may have confirmed two elusive clouds of dust, in semi-stable points just 400,000 kilometres from Earth.

Read More: Satellites News and Satellites Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to