Before leaving on a business trip (to Russia, most interesting) ten days ago, I posted the following message to a couple of space and intelligence newsgroups. It isn't exactly on-charter for Seesat, but since it draws heavily on amateur satellite observers' work I thought it might be appropriate to post it here anyway, particularly in light of the current interest in USA 86/116 and NOSS 2-3. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- One of the interesting themes in the recently released House intelligence community study, IC21, is that foreign "denial and deception" (D&D) activities are on the increase and need to be countered. This reminds me of a puzzle which first came up in connection with the "Where is AFP-731?" thread last winter. Namely, that the US, mostly meaning the NRO, has taken a series of actions over the past decade and more which must have stimulated potentially hostile countries to broaden and improve their D&D programs against reconnaissance satellites. Since it's difficult to imagine that this was an intended consequence, we may be seeing an organization's enthusiasm for technology and secrecy outstripping its ability to foresee results. (Actually, the overall irrationality of the NRO's system design process is another major theme of IC21. More on that in a later posting.) The first action came in 1983, when the US stopped releasing current orbital elements for its spysats and became ever more tardy in reporting their launches and initial orbital elements to the UN, as required by treaty. (Jim Oberg has apparently written an article on this.) Presumably this didn't bother the Soviets much, as they had an independent space tracking capability. Other countries, however, may have been using the elements to some extent to keep track of the satellites, and would have had to reconsider their D&D practices or otherwise compensate for the lost information. For example, countries such as Iran and China might have been stimulated to duplicate the optical tracking capabilities of the amateur satellite observers (who were tracking the spysats all along). Next, starting in 1990, there have been at least four "disappearing" satellites which have been reported or suspected to be large imaging satellites. (A few others have also disappeared, but no rumors or circumstances linking them to imaging satellites have surfaced.) The first of these that I know of was AFP-731 (aka USA 53, 1990-019 B) itself, followed by the two primary objects accompanying the NOSS-2 putative ELINT triplets (USA 59, 1990-50 A, and USA 72, 1991-076 A). The analytical situation regarding these satellites in the amateur community is well summarized in the notes accompanying Ted Molczan's weekly orbital element list; I've appended the relevant sections to this message. Since the Molczan notes have been available on the Canadian Space Society bulletin board for several years and are mirrored on a number of Internet sites, one has to assume that foreign intelligence services are aware of the situation from that source, if not from their own space surveillance and espionage activities. Most recently, the satellite USA 86, assessed to be a photoreconnaissance satellite, was apparently (based on booster configuration and launch time and azimuth) replaced by USA 116 after only three years in orbit. Considering the length of time it takes to prepare and launch a big satellite on a Titan IV, the decision to launch USA 116 must have been made not much later than two and half years after the launch of USA 86. Since US reconnaissance satellites seem to have normal lifetimes of at least five years, we're either looking at a failure on orbit followed by deorbiting after the replacement was launched, or another "disappearance". Of course, it can't be ruled out that the single object now in the orbit consistent with the last amateur observations of USA 86 in 1995 is, in fact, USA 86. In that case, it's USA 116 that's disappeared. Whether the Russians, who continue to operate the USSR's formidable space surveillance system, consider these objects to be "disappeared" is unknown. It's reasonable, however, to think that some countries of interest, such as North Korea and Iran, may not have much better space surveillance capabilities than the international amateur satellite observers' community does. These are the folks who must be wondering what's going on, and what to do about it. While one could write down a list of candidate explanations for the disappearances -- one possibility that's been suggested is that the satellites were boosted into considerably higher orbits to improve area coverage and dwell time -- it doesn't really matter what the truth of the matter is. It could even be that they were simply deorbited or weren't imaging spysats in the first place. The important thing is the possibility that they might have been spysats together with the the unusual circumstances of their disappearances, because it's the resultant uncertainty and suspicion that must drive the D&D planning process in other countries. Previously -- at least up to the cut-off of official orbital elements in 1983 and possibly up to 1990 if the country had some indigenous space surveillance capability -- such a program could predict spysat overflights and schedule nefarious outdoor activities for times when there were no eyes in the sky. (There's a scene in a Tom Clancy movie illustrating this: terrorists training at a desert camp look innocent when a reconnaissance satellite is scheduled to come over.) In the present situation, however, the nefarious actors must take into account the possibility that there are spysats lurking somewhere unknown in the depths of space, and that possibility must be factored into the D&D plan -- in other words, scheduling sensitive activities around satellite passes is no longer a workable concealment option. D&D in under such conditions requires different measures than when scheduled concealment can be employed but in general should be fairly feasible and straightforward, though perhaps requiring some additional trouble and expense. It would be interesting to get an historical assessment of the nature of Nth country D&D programs and see whether there have been noticeable changes in the direction of full-time concealment. The IC21 language implies that that might indeed be the case Finally, I don't really think this is going to matter much in a few years. Although the NRO may have been a bit thoughtless in providing the stimuli for more comprehensive Nth country D&D efforts, the increasing number of high-resolution commercial and military satellites is going to produce the same effect. Even if orbits are known, overflights will eventually occur so often that scheduled concealment will become impossibly burdensome, and anyone one who cares will have to assume the essentially constant presence of overhead reconnaissance. Here are the excerpts from Ted Molczan's file. A copy of the entire thing is in ftp://kilroy.jpl.nasa.gov/pub/space/elements/molczan/new_molc.Z ---------------------------------------------------------------- These elements are provided as a service to visual observers. They are uploaded weekly to the Canadian Space Society's BBS in Toronto, Canada. This is a free BBS, operating 24 h/d, <=2400 B, 8N1, phone 905-458-5907. The Saga of USA 53 - Found, Lost, Found Again and Lost Again Satellite sleuths will recall space shuttle mission STS 36, which deployed a secret CIA/Air Force satellite named USA 53 (90019B, 20516) on March 1, 1990. Aviation Week reported it to be a large digital imaging reconnaissance satellite. Members of an observation network which I organized, observed the satellite between the 2nd and 4th of March. It was deployed into a 62 deg inclination, 254 km altitude orbit. Early on March 3rd, it manoeuvred to a 271 km altitude. Observers noted that the object was extremely bright, reaching a visual magnitude of -1 under favourable conditions. Its brightness was similar to that of the very large KH-9 and KH- 11 imaging reconnaissance satellites. On March 16th, the Soviet news media reported that several large pieces of debris from the satellite had been detected in orbit on March 7th, and suggested that it had exploded. In response to Western media inquiries, the Pentagon stated that "hardware elements from the successful mission of STS 36 would decay over the next six weeks". As expected, the Air Force statement was vague about the status of USA 53. The debris could have been from a break- up of the satellite, or simply incidental debris. Only five pieces of debris were ever catalogued. An intensive search by observers in late March failed to locate the satellite. Six months later, the mystery of USA 53 was solved, through the efforts of three European observers. On October 19th, 1990, I received a message from Russell Eberst, stating that he, along with Pierre Neirinck and Daniel Karcher had found an object in a 65 deg inclination, 811 km altitude orbit, which did not match the orbit of any known payload, rocket body or piece of debris. He suspected that the object could be a secret U.S. payload, and asked me to try and identify it. There are many secret U.S. objects in orbit, however, initial orbital elements, released in accordance with a United Nations treaty, are available for most of them. Most objects could be easily ruled out on the basis of orbital inclination. There remained three recent high inclination launches for which the U.N. had not yet received elements, and three satellites in near 65 deg inc orbits which had been tracked for a short time by observers, then lost after they manoeuvred. I found an excellent match with one of the latter, USA 53. There were no close matches with any of the other objects. My analysis revealed that the orbital plane of the mystery object was almost exactly coplanar with USA 53 on March 7, 1990, the same date that the Soviets found debris from USA 53 in orbit! This is a strong indication that the object in question actually is USA 53, now in a new orbit. The debris may have been connected with the manoeuvres to the new orbit. USA 53 was successfully tracked by observers until early November 1990, when it manoeuvred once more. The orbit was raised slightly on or about Nov 2nd, which is reflected in the most current elements. Bad weather prevented further observation attempts until 7 November, by which time, the object had made a much more significant manoeuvre, and could no longer be found. So far, all attempts to once again locate USA 53 have failed. The following are its last known elements: USA 53 18.0 4.0 0.0 4.1 1 20516U 90019 B 90309.99079700 -.00002298 00000-0 -95528-3 0 03 2 20516 65.0200 194.0588 0009734 214.9671 144.9440 14.26241038 04 Second Generation NOSS A Titan 4 rocket, launched on 8 June 1990 from Florida, carried four payloads into orbit, three of which were discovered by Russell Eberst to belong to a new, apparently second generation, NOSS cluster. The satellites are about two magnitudes brighter than older NOSS satellites; also, there appears to be no fourth "main" NOSS satellite. The new cluster, 90050B-D, is in the same orbit as the eighth first generation cluster, 87043. The orbit of the fourth Titan 4 payload, 90050A (20641) is unknown. Originally, it was in a 61 deg inclination, 455 km altitude orbit, but it manoeuvred on the night of 19-20 June 1990, and has not been seen since. It probably deployed the NOSS cluster in its 63.43 deg inclination, 1116 km altitude orbit, before manoeuvring to its final orbit. There has been some informed speculation by news reporters that 90050A is mainly an imaging reconsat, and that the NOSS cluster was only a secondary payload. USA 72 Launch Carried NOSS 2-2 Cluster Russell Eberst and Pierre Neirinck have discovered that the USA 72 launch also carried the second cluster of the second generation NOSS satellites. Element sets for 91076C, D and E (NORAD #s 21799, 21808, 21809) are in the above listing. Their orbital plane is about 120 deg west of the NOSS 2-1 cluster. This discovery proves conclusively that this was not the launch of Lacrosse 3. It probably carried the same type of payload as the Titan 4 launch that placed USA 59 and the first cluster of the second generation NOSS into orbit last year. The big unresolved question is the mission and orbital location of the main payloads, USA 59 and USA 72.