Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/01/sbss_go_for_july/

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

Crafty Antipodean orbit shifts now harder to manage

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 1st June 2010 14:20 GMT

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

We gotcha this time! Disused telecoms satellite, my ass

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.

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.