Posting observations and elements of spysats

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Wed Sep 19 2001 - 19:20:12 EDT

The tragic events of 2001 Sep 11 have led some SeeSat-L subscribers to question
the propriety of posting observations and orbital elements of U.S. spysats.
This activity is entirely legal; however, it is quite proper to question the
ethics. In the world of science and technology, we must consider the ethics of
our actions.

The following are my beliefs; I do not pretend to speak for any of my fellow
observers and analysts.

I strongly doubt that orbital elements from any source are of any value to

Consider the imaging satellites in low Earth orbit. They were designed to be
useful against the former USSR, which had huge military and industrial
complexes. Naval vessels, missiles, planes, tanks and their supporting
infrastructure are excellent targets for spysats.

In comparison, terrorist equipment and activities are of such a small scale,
that I doubt anything important would be detected by imagers. Certainly they
can image the buildings in which terrorists are housed (given clues as to their
location), but they cannot see through walls and roofs. Some terrorists
reportedly have training camps, which might be worth imaging, if only for
targeting purposes.

The half dozen U.S. LEO imagers now in orbit, assuming 2 to 4 good passes per
sat per day, would seem to leave little opportunity for terrorists to hide
their outdoor activities, presumably small scale training activities.

The electronic imaging sats in GEO or Molniya orbits have the potential to
yield the most useful information on terrorists, so long as they use
communications that involve radio transmission. At any given time, the entire
Earth is under surveillance by these sats, so there is no way to hide, except
to avoid radio transmission. Knowing the precise locations of those satellites
would not help terrorists avoid detection.

Hours after last week's attack, published, "A Nation Under Siege -
Did Satellites Serve the Country?":

A couple of relevant quotes:

"The entire U.S. intelligence community, including all of its expensive
satellites, is helpless against any enemy that practices operations security.
That means, if they donít use the phone, don't use a computer, and if they do
all their business face to face with single-trusted companions, there is no way
the existing intelligence infrastructure can anticipate this kind of
coordinated attack," Steele said.


"Taking satellite photos of terrorist facilities can only go so far, Richelson

"But what's going on inside those buildings in terms of planning is not
something you can detect by satellite, unless they actually go out and
practice. I don't think they would have practiced smashing jets into tall
towers," Richelson said. Even if the United States had 24 hours-a-day,
real-time surveillance of every place on Earth, simultaneously, he said,
detection of such terrorist planning is doubtful."

Since that article was published, we have learned the shocking truth that the
terrorists lived and trained within the U.S.A., in some cases for years. I
strongly doubt that any of the communities in which they lived have ever been
tasked for imaging by KeyHole or Lacrosse.

I believe that by making observations and elements public, hobbyists assist
journalists, scholars and those with opposing political views to play their
vital role in a democracy.

We also expose the nonsense that all spysat orbits can be kept secret. If a
dozen dedicated hobbyists can track U.S. spysats using binoculars, stopwatches
and personal computers, then virtually any nation or international organization
can do so, given the motivation.

It would be highly unusual for all of us to agree on this issue, and
unfortunately, there can be no assurance of who is right. It is my hope that
those on either side can agree to disagree, and leave it to the conscience of
the individual.

Ted Molczan

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Sep 20 2001 - 17:55:53 EDT