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

Crafty Antipodean orbit shifts now harder to manage

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Important satellite taken out 'by accident'... it's happened already. Doubtless a coincidence

Thus there have been some efforts to fit satellites with subsidiary payloads that might allow them to know if they came under attack, and others intended to endow them with the ability to call home even where no suitable US military ground stations or relay sats are available.

Detail (not much) of the sensor fitted to the SBSS satellite. Credit: Ball Aerospace

As much detail as anyone's willing to let us see of the SBSS sensor.

The SBSS is supposed to go a step further, by placing a dedicated watcher satellite in a high orbit, able to scan the space above much of an entier hemisphere. The SBSS is equipped with "a digital sensor mounted on a high-speed gimbal", allowing it to quickly get a lock on an interesting spacecraft without needing to swivel the whole craft.

The overwatching SBSS could thus alert its Space Superiority controllers if it saw a foreign spy bird changing orbit for an unexpected run above Groom Lake, for instance. It could also track a potential sat-busting weapon as it snuck up on an unsuspecting, critical US asset: for instance a GPS nav-sat, or - just to pluck a situation from the air - an Iridium commercial comms platform of the sort sometimes so important to spooks, submarines, special-forces troops etc*. Funnily enough an Iridium bird was destroyed in a reportedly accidental collision with an old Russian sat just last year.

"The SBSS is ready to perform its mission in space," says Colonel J R Jordan, vice-commander of the Space Superiority Wing.

Deliberate meddling with another nation's satellites is of course totally forbidden by international agreement. Nonetheless it seems that the US intends to be ready for possible surreptitious violations.

There are even some indications that America might not be above a little bit of unattributable orbital naughtiness itself at some point in the future. ®

*The Iridium satcomms constellation is the only one that can be used without a correctly-oriented dish, ie by a small buoy released from a submarine, or a covert agent or spec-ops detachment far from normal comms facilities. Unsurprisingly Iridium was saved from commercial failure by the US government once it became clear that GSM roaming would be easier for ordinary folk to use.

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