America’s spy satellites are not in the orbits the Pentagon says they’re in,according to a Harvard space analyst. If satellite orbits cannot be trusted,there will be major problems for future space-based anti-missile lasers andanti-satellite weapons, if space-based weaponry is approved by Congress.
The 1975 UN Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Spacerequires nations to maintain a registry of the objects they launch. ButJonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center forAstrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has found discrepancies in the UNdata. “Suspicious mistakes date back as early as the 1970s,” he says. “TheU.S. is not in compliance. The 1989 launch of military satellite 1989-72Awas never registered with the UN.”
The UN’s outer space convention was created to identify the owners of allsatellites, in case any posed hazards or caused damage. Governments want toknow the orbits of other objects so they can be sure no one is trying tointercept their own satellites, according to Charles Vick of the Federationof American Scientists in Washington DC.
The discrepancies have become worse recently-correct orbits are listed foronly two of the ten classified satellites the US launched in 1999 and 2000,according to McDowell. Three listed orbits are not those the satellitesfinally moved into, while another four are wrong for other reasons, such aslisting the orbit of another object launched at the same time. The remainingdiscrepancy is simply a typographical error.
The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs has confirmed that the Pentagon’s datais incorrect, but says it can’t do anything about it. A spokesman for U.S.Space Command, which tracks 9,000 satellites from its base inside CheyenneMountain in Colorado, says the they are “in full compliance with theconvention.” According to the treaty, each nation can determine “the contentof each registry and the conditions under which it is maintained.”
The UN registry allows long delays in providing data, and does not requirenations to give the final orbits of their satellites. “In fact, they mostlyprovide only the initial orbit,” says Petr Lala, research chief for the UN office, who is aware of McDowell’s findings.
Although U.S. Space Command says it stays within the rules of the treaty,McDowell says, “It’s certainly violating the spirit of an internationalcommitment.” Vick thinks the Pentagon is intentionally concealing the orbitsof its spy satellites in order to evade surveillance from space, but Russiaand China have their own tracking systems, and amateur astronomers postorbits on the Web.
“It’s silly. These things are among the brightest objects in the sky,” saysJohn Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based policy group.He says the Pentagon has grown arrogant, believing “we won the cold war, wecan do whatever we want.”
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that Taiwan has been spying on China via anIsraeli spy satellite. Taiwan’s military intelligence is now using theEROS-1 (Earth Resource Observation Satellite). “Taiwan is authorized tofully control the satellite whenever it flies within a range of 1,000kilometers (600 miles) of the island’s satellite ground signal station,”according to the United Daily News. “Taiwan is able to spy on any targets onthe mainland it desires.” The Taiwan defense ministry refused to comment onthe newspaper report.
Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan, which it regards as partof China.In the latest threat, defense minister Chi Haotian said the People’sLiberation Army, which is the world’s largest army, must be ready to retakeTaiwan. Taiwan’s defense ministry says China has 350 ballistic missilestargeted on Taiwan.
“In the past Taiwan was only able to spy on the mainland’s coastal andsoutheastern part through reconnaissance aircraft, now Taiwan gets clearerpictures of the mainland’s military establishments,” says an anonymousmilitary source. Before, Taiwan purchased photos taken from the U.S. IKONOScommercial satellite, which take a month to deliver.According to the military source, “This does not meet the military’s realtime and confidential demands.”
Taiwan has signed contracts with Israel to use three other identicalsatellites that are due to become operational within the next five years.Taiwan has its own satellites as well. In October 1991 it launched a 15-yearspace program at an estimated cost of 19.6 billion Taiwan dollars ($560million U.S.). Its first science satellite ROCSAT-1 was launched from theUnited States in January 1999. Its second satellite, ROCSAT-2, will be sentinto orbit in late 2003. Although authorities insist it will be used forscientific research, some think it can be transferred to military uses.
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