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U.S. Satellites Outnumber Rest of World

December 8, 2005

WASHINGTON — The United States has 413 satellites in space snooping for the government, checking on the weather and relaying the latest pop music, a new database says. That’s more than the 382 the rest of the world has spinning above the Earth.

The inventory, developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists and released Wednesday, provides details on some of the Pentagon’s most secret satellites, which may gather images in the dark or take high-resolution pictures from 12,000 miles away.

“Until now, the general public didn’t have easy access to information about all active satellites,” said Dr. Laura Grego, a Cambridge astrophysicist who was on a team that spent several years compiling information on the nearly 800 active satellites. “No one owns space, so everyone has a right to know what’s up there.”

The material was gleaned from corporations, academics, governments and satellite watchers who as a hobby spend their nights watching the skies for flickers of light.

The group’s inventory lists 21 different details on satellites with missions ranging from weather forecasting to transmitting music and news for companies like Sirius Satellite Radio. Perhaps most controversially, the repository includes what’s known about top-secret spy satellites run by the U.S. and other governments.

With 413, the United States far exceeds other nations in numbers of satellites, often used for communications. The Russians, who follow the U.S. in total number, have 87. The Chinese have 34. The numbers are approximations that may vary depending on how joint ventures are counted.

Facts and figures on unclassified satellites were publicly available from the U.S. government until recently. For national security reasons, individuals now must request an account from the Air Force to access the information, and may redistribute any of the information only with permission from the Defense Department.

The Union of Concerned Scientists opposes space-based weapons and destructive weapons that target satellites, even from the ground. It made the data public to start a dialogue about the best use of space.

The group is reasonably sure it knows about most – if not all – satellites because their launches are major events and must be registered with the United Nations. While it did not provide precise orbits that would enable someone to find a satellite at any moment, the union’s database does give other closely held information.

For instance, the database lists 40 classified military and surveillance satellites with names such as Mercury, Trumpet and Orion run by the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and manages U.S. spy satellites. The classified names are listed only when known; often aliases are found.

The agency’s spokesman, Rick Oborn, said he had not seen the database yet. “From an intelligence standpoint, the less people know or think they know about what we have, that is certainly our preference,” he said.

The inventory also provides details about a highly classified $1 billion satellite, known as Misty-2, including its expected life span of more than 5 years and May 22, 1999, launch date.

Grego said satellite watchers had spotted Misty-2 even though it was disguised as space debris. “These guys are in the backyards every night and know the sky like the back of their hand,” she said.

According to the union, the high-resolution surveillance satellite can carry up to 7 metric tons of rocket fuel, used to help steer it into new orbits or correct its course.

The National Reconnaissance Office has asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak of other general information about the Misty program one year ago. Those details were published in news reports after three Democratic senators cryptically questioned the program’s price and merits during a Senate debate.

Facts about the secretive Lacrosse satellites also are included in the database. Information about that program became public by accident in 2000 when the National Reconnaissance Office distributed patches to agency employees to celebrate the launch of the Titan IV.

The patches revealed the rocket’s secret passenger: the Lacrosse-4, which uses radar to gather images in the dark.

Satellite watchers used clues on the patch, including the embroidered path of four satellites, to figure out where the new Lacrosse orbited.

“We own the night,” the patch said.

On the Net:

Union of Concerned Scientists spreadsheet: http://www.ucsusa.org/satellite_database




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