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US space dirty-tricks spysat spying sat is go for July

Crafty Antipodean orbit shifts now harder to manage

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Delayed US military plans to deploy a special spysat-spying sat which will monitor other nations' spysats and watch out for attempts to nobble America's ordinary spysats are to move forward this summer.

US military graphic showing catalogued objects in Earth orbit

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The first Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS) spacecraft was to have been deployed last year aboard a cost-saving Minotaur IV rocket stack, fashioned out of decommissioned Peacekeeper ballistic missile components with new bits added. However, according to SBSS lead contractor Boeing:

A hardware issue with the Minotaur IV rocket forced the Air Force to postpone launch until this summer.

It seems that the Minotaur snags have now been rectified and a successful recycled-rocket launch took place in April from the main US military space bases, Vandenberg AFB in California. The SBSS is now being mated to its own Minotaur IV and is expected to be launched on July 8.

The SBSS is intended to make life much easier for the US air force Space Superiority Wing, which tries to keep tabs on all other nations' military "space assets". This usually means spy satellites, but in rare cases it might include a dedicated anti-satellite weapon like the Chinese one tested in 2007 or the Soviet ASATs of Cold War times.

Even ordinary spy sats are difficult to keep a handle on using ordinary Earthbound means, as they can use their manoeuvring thrusters while below the horizon - perhaps on the other side of the planet from the USA - and so change orbit. Then the next time they come around they will be in quite a different place from where the Space Superiority Wing expected them. This would be unfortunate if the new surprise orbit took them above a top-secret US weapons test or military maneouvre of some kind, for instance.

Then, there's the matter of America's own spy, communications and navigation satellites. Most of these could be taken out by a sufficiently advanced enemy, perhaps with serious consequences. If this was done by using another fully-orbital spacecraft along ASAT lines (as opposed to a suborbital rocket launch directly aimed to get in the way of a spacecraft) it might be difficult or impossible for the USA to know who had done it - or even if anything had actually been done.

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