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French Threat To ID Secret US Satellites 355

Posted by kdawson
from the i-spy-with-my-little-radar dept.
SkiifGeek brings to our attention a story that ran on space.com a few months back but didn't get much wider notice at the time. "The French have identified numerous objects in orbit that do not appear in the ephemeris data reported by the US Space Surveillance Network. Now, the US claims that if it doesn't appear in the ephemeris data, then it doesn't exist. The French insist that at least some of the objects they have found boast solar arrays. Therefore it seems that the French have found secret US satellites. While they don't plan to release the information publicly, they do intend to use it as leverage to get the US to suppress reporting of sensitive French satellites in their published ephemeris."
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French Threat To ID Secret US Satellites

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  • Headline (Score:3, Informative)

    by RedWizzard (192002) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:48PM (#20548139)
    Shouldn't that be "French Threaten to ID Secret US Satellites"?
  • US? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:49PM (#20548141)
    They are hoping they are US satellites and not Chinese[insert evil empire name] satellites.
    • Re:US? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by sepluv (641107) <blakesleyNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:55PM (#20548197) Homepage
      If they were Chinese why would the US be denying they existed?
      • by Quadraginta (902985) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:08PM (#20548283)
        Surely the wise course of action would be to deny the existence of all secret US satellites plus a smattering of somebody elses's satellites, too. Just to stir up the entropy pool a bit.
        • Spy vs Spy (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Nymz (905908) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @12:07AM (#20548675) Journal

          Surely the wise course of action would be to deny the existence of all secret US satellites plus a smattering of somebody elses's satellites, too.
          If the USA knew about a secret satellite of a hostile country, it would be a poor decision to let them know, that you know. It would be equally unlikey to expect the other country to then respond in kind and let the USA know, that they know, that the USA knows, that they themselves know, about the secret stealth satellite.
          • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @06:58AM (#20550915)
            Jim Hacker: It's a bluff. I probably wouldn't use it.
            Sir Humphrey: Yes, but they don't know that you probably wouldn't.
            Jim Hacker: They probably do.
            Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn't. But they can't certainly know.
            Jim Hacker: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn't.
            Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn't, they don't certainly know that, although you probably wouldn't, there is no probability that you certainly would.
    • I can't say much about it, but maybe they have visual confirmation of the satellites (US or not), possibly with US markings or corporate insignia on them?
      • Re:US? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by fractoid (1076465) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @01:39AM (#20549225) Homepage
        Cuz if I were going to put a spy satellite up, I'd totally put a flag on it so they knew whose spy satellite it was.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Adambomb (118938)
          Or pur a whole bunch of other countries flags on it. Confuse the hell out of the issue.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by mpe (36238)
          Cuz if I were going to put a spy satellite up, I'd totally put a flag on it so they knew whose spy satellite it was.

          You might want to put a flag on it, just not your flag on it. If you really wanted to confuse people you'd use the flag of somewhere like Zimbabwe.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:51PM (#20548161)
    I personally know the CEO of a company who is in charge of the positioning and random stuff of several US satellites. They don't keep the existence of "secret satellites" a secret, they just don't tell anyone what the satellites do. They don't have to hide their very existence as long as no one knows what they are for... it would be pointless and a waste of secretiveness.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:22PM (#20548393)
      I personally know the REAL head of the NSA. We lunch daily and discuss the latest sat feeds over fresh ground coffee and scones. No shit.
    • I don't think so (Score:5, Informative)

      by Quadraginta (902985) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:47PM (#20548553)
      There's a number of useful things you can know about a satellite, just knowing it's orbit.

      * If it's geostationary, it's designed to look at or communicate with whatever is right underneath it. It's also unlikely to be a photorecon satellite, because your km-per-pixel sucks from 36,000 km away.

      * If it's in a polar orbit, it's probably designed to look at big swathes of the Earth as the latter rotates under it. Polar orbits are too expensive otherwise.

      * If it's in a low orbit with just enough inclination to get up to your latitude -- why, that sounds like it might be a photorecon satellite designed with you in mind...

      * In which case, if you know when it's over you, and when it's not, then you have a rough idea of when you're in the crosshairs. That can be handy.

      I don't necessarily disagree that the main way you keep your capabilities secret is to keep what the satellites do secret. But it probably helps, at least a little bit, to keep the existence and orbit of the thing secret, too.
    • by jamesh (87723)

      waste of secretiveness

      Just a random thing, and I know exactly what you meant, but that bit conjured up an image of a limited national resource of secretiveness that should be used sparingly lest it run out.

      "What is the state of our secretiveness store?"

      "Not good sir, only 23 units left in the warehouse, and we aren't expecting our next shipment until October!"
    • Whether your specific story is true or not (hey, it's the interweb, just sayin) it makes sense.

      It wouldn't be very hard or expensive to find sats. They are easily seen by backyard astronomers.

      So even hard to see ones would, I'd imagine, would be well within the abilities of nearly every nation on the planet should they want.
  • let 'em (Score:3, Insightful)

    by confused one (671304) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:54PM (#20548175)
    If they're really there, it's an empty threat. If the French can see them then so can anyone else with a telescope. It's likely everyone else of consequence already knows about them.
    • by russotto (537200)

      If they're really there, it's an empty threat. If the French can see them then so can anyone else with a telescope. It's likely everyone else of consequence already knows about them.
      Wish I had mod points. +1 insightful for you, +1 DUH for the French.
      • Re:let 'em (Score:5, Insightful)

        by IWannaBeAnAC (653701) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:24PM (#20548405)
        Go ahead. I dare you to find and track a surveilance satellite with a telescope. It isn't impossible, but think for a minute what it requires.
        • Re:let 'em (Score:4, Interesting)

          by confused one (671304) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:38PM (#20548481)
          An amateur will have a difficult time. It's hard enough to track the ISS, which is a pretty damn big and well known target. However, we're not talking about amateur's here... We're talking about military resources of larger governments which, for the most part, already have space launch capability, or are allied with someone for access to space launch capability. They'll already have hardware to track their own equipment. They'll already have radar to monitor their own airspace. It's not a stretch.
          • Re:let 'em (Score:5, Informative)

            by E++99 (880734) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @02:24AM (#20549449) Homepage
            Amateur satellite trackers have been the bane of US secret satellite projects for quite a while, actually. You don't necessarily even need a telescope to do it, you just need to live somewhere without too much light pollution. (Which is probably why a lot of the notable amateurs tend to be from Canada or Australia.) Of course what the amateurs publish probably doesn't come close to the precise ephemeris data that the French are gathering, and likewise doesn't include radio frequencies.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by TFloore (27278)
            We're talking about military resources of larger governments

            Very true. But even larger governments do not have unlimited military resources.

            If you make them spend those resources finding something you didn't tell them for free, they can't use those resources for some other purpose.

            Always make it more expensive for the other guy. Don't give them something for free needlessly.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Read the damn article - its detected them using a new radar system not with backyard telescopes.
    • But what about smaller organizations? Satellites tasked for pictures of, for example, terrorist training camps or drug-running? It's a bit easier to look up satellite coverage on a website than it is to scan the sky for a...

      Oh.

      It's a French website, isn't it?

      Okay, here's a new idea: nobody teach French to terrorists.
    • by drgonzo59 (747139) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:18PM (#20548359)
      Now, the US claims that if it doesn't appear in the ephemeris data, then it doesn't exist


      So shooting a laser beam to blind something non-existent shouldn't be a problem. If you can knock this non-existent "thing" from the sky even better, now it would "doubly" not exist!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by arivanov (12034)
        As the French would say: "Touche, Monsieur".
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by fractoid (1076465)
        ...unless it turns out that it's actually NOT a US spy satellite, and in fact belongs to China. At which point your career prospects become veeery dubious.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          ...unless it turns out that it's actually NOT a US spy satellite, and in fact belongs to China. At which point your career prospects become veeery dubious.
          Only if you're Chinese.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        There is a joke that I once heard before about a US stealth plane flying over France, along these lines:

        The French detect a spy plane flying over their territory and on suspecting that it belongs to the US contact them:
        French: We have an unidentified plane flying over our territory and believe it is yours
        USA: I don't think so
        French: Are you sure?
        USA: Yes
        French: So you won't mind if we shoot it down
        USA: Uh um, you had better hold off on that one

        Apparently the French Thompson radar are meant to be that good.
    • by physicsphairy (720718) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:37PM (#20548475) Homepage
      I believe it's a bit more involved than that.

      First consideration: It is a fairly involved and expensive process to catalogue these objects. Maybe some crazy EE guy could mess with them with a ground based laser for an affordable $20k or whatever (I honestly don't know the feasibility of that) but having to go back and classify near-earth space objects on top of that would probably push it being the range of feasability for any small scale endeavor.

      And, another *big part* of defense/offense is simply making it more expensive to engage youl. This is the definition of why defense is always more difficult than offense--the defender has to defend every avenue of attack, the aggressor need only choose the most favorable to themselves. Sure, it might be possible for any modern nation to invest a few billion to making the identifications, and that might nullify the advantage you would have otherwise, but getting them to spend the money is itself an advantage. Even countries that starve their citizens to pay for missiles (ala, north korea) only have limited budgets. The thinner you can spread them, the better off *you* are.

      Second consideration: In as much as identifying satellites is a statistical process, i.e., "We've looked at 70% of the objects in the sky, and have identified +/- 20% of those which are satellites " then sharing data is always beneficient in giving you more certain results. This is relevant not only because it means you get more satellites, but especially because the satellites you do get are more defintie to be representative of the whole. If you were going to organize some strategic strike against America's defense satellites, you'd want to get all of them. Otherwise you might waste a bunch of money to get the tactical advantage of taking out the satellites and America will just be like "Whoops, they got some of our satellites, time to change to the backups. Cool, our network is fully functional again. Let's go nuke whoever did that."

      Third consideration: I don't think the location of all the 'public' satellites are disclosed. The French are able to identify which are secret satellites because we told them the ones that weren't. Anyone who didn't know that could certainly identify satellite objects in the sky, but they would be unable to distinguish between commercial GPS satellites and secret military missile-commanding GPS satellites.

      Now, I don't really know how much any of those come into effect on their own, but my point is that just because it is possible for someone else to gain knowledge without your disclosing it does not mean that it doesn't make a difference whether you simply disclose it or make them work to figure it out.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by confused one (671304)
        I think you miss the point of my extremely short and to the point post... If they want to publish "We have found satellites in orbits x, y, and z..." then, so what. It's not affecting our tactics (much). We can continue to deny they exist, if that's our plan. They can continue to expend money and effort trying to identify them.

        I'm not concerned about amateur efforts to identify the satellites, they're irrelevant.

        Any country of consequence, who would be capable of affecting our satellites in orbit,
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Kristoph (242780)
          I think you are missing the point entirely. No one is interested in this information so they can 'affect' the hardware. The crux of the issue is that if the French start publishing live orbital telemetry on spy satellites then it will be damn easy for any interested party to 'hide' as the satellite passes over.

          Moreover, changes in the telemetry will tell the 'bad guys' when the US is interested in something and hence they will have a better sense if their activities have aroused US suspicion.

          I'd wager that
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Oswald (235719)
      If they're really there, it's an empty threat.

      But if they're not there, it's...serious?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Guppy06 (410832)
      "If the French can see them then so can anyone else with a telescope."

      Those are very small satellites in a very, very big sky (it's not called "space" for no reason). If you're lucky, you might see it with the naked eye go by near sunrise or sunset, so that it catches sunlight against the dark sky, but otherwise you'd have to use magnification, which means limiting your field of view dramatically to look for an object that is in your stretch of sky for less than a minute while it passes through your field
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by BillyBlaze (746775)
        Well, you can count on luck if you're constantly vigilant. Point a bunch of digital cameras at the sky, taking long-exposure images during dusk and dawn. Enough cameras to cover the horizon. Control them with a computer. Then you just need an automated system to pick out streaks with the right curvature, compute their orbits, and correlate them against your database of known targets. If you find one you haven't seen before, you can probably extract enough information to find it on its next pass and tak
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Guppy06 (410832)
          "taking long-exposure images during dusk and dawn."

          You need to know when the streak was made, preferably to the nearest second (at least). From the ground, LEO satellites move through the sky faster than a passenger jet at cruising altitudes (especially the "interesting" satellites in polar orbits). You'd also have to know in what direction it moved.

          "Enough cameras to cover the horizon."

          An object reflecting sunlight while overhead need not still be catching sunlight near the horizon. On top of that, at t
  • oh god... (Score:5, Funny)

    by doubtless (267357) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:55PM (#20548193) Homepage
    freedom fries all over again?
  • by User 956 (568564) on Monday September 10, 2007 @10:59PM (#20548217) Homepage
    Therefore it seems that the French have found secret US satellites.

    If they're referring to the moon, that's been ours for a while (finders keepers), and it's not exactly a secret. unless you're referring to man-made satellites only?
    • unless you're referring to man-made satellites only?

      If you're referring to man-made satellites only, then, the U.S. will probably be forced to admit, that's no moon.
      • by hawk (1151)
        Damn. They've found our fully operational space station.

        Nothing left but for a demonstration of its capacity . . .

        Hey, what's that coast with the guy with bad glasses?

  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:00PM (#20548221)
    Numerous communications satellites have been lost over the years. Others may be a secret alien monitoring network...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Guppy06 (410832)
      "Numerous communications satellites have been lost over the years."

      They tend to fall out of orbit and burn up in re-entry and/or are placed in geosynchronous orbit, not the globe-spanning polar LEO's favored by the spook community.

      Also, for the kind of money involved in launching, using and maintaining one, you do not lose one casually.

      "Others may be a secret alien monitoring network..."

      "What, haven't the hairless apes wiped themselves out yet?" Alien monitoring requires that we actually be, y'know, intere
  • Dupe? (Score:3, Informative)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:19PM (#20548361) Journal
    First, this was from June, and second, I recall seeing this out here earlier.
    • by sepluv (641107)
      That's good because I thought it must have been deja vu as /. Search turned up nothing.
  • I'll show you mine if you show me yours or is that I wont show yours if you dont show mine to the world. Sounds like a bunch of preteens. Okay America is just 200 years old so its like a kid as far as nations go but what is France's excuse?
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:35PM (#20548461) Homepage

    The US has had the Ground Based-Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance [fas.org] system since the early 1980s. GEODSS is an automated sky search telescope system. Multiple sites with multiple 40-inch telescopes search the sky automatically every night, looking for anything that isn't in the catalogues. GEODSS will even detect dark objects that occult stars. Everybody has automated astronomy now, but it started with GEODSS, around 1980.

    GEODSS has an unusual feature for a telescope - illumination. The system can use one of the telescopes at a site to aim a laser light source, while the other telescope looks at the target with the imager. This allows a good look at low-orbit satellites.

    The original test installation for GEODSS, at White Sands, NM, is now used by MIT to look for near-Earth objects. They've found 1622 so far. It wouldn't hurt to have more systems working on that problem. A French version of GEODSS would be a win for everyone.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      The difference is... the French (and Germans, see the SPACE.com article referenced in the original Slashdot posting) used a radar system, not an optical one, to detect the publicly uncatalogued satellites. Presumably it can detect satellites that aren't visible (except for occultations) to the average optical system ("black ops", in a very literal sense).

      The French are serious about space operations, both commercially and militarily. Arianespace, a French company (in essence) launching from French territo
  • Easy to replicate (Score:5, Informative)

    by squidinkcalligraphy (558677) on Monday September 10, 2007 @11:40PM (#20548495)
    If I recall correctly, the US didn't know where or when Pakistan (or was it India?) was about to detonate its first test nuke because the satellites didn't see the materials being moved in or out of the expected sites. They didn't see it because the Pakistanis (or Indians) were keeping track of satellites and not moving anything when there were unknown ones overhead. It's quite easy to do; it just requires a lot of manpower (which there is plenty of in the subcontinent)

    vik
    • They didn't see it because the Pakistanis (or Indians) were keeping track of satellites and not moving anything when there were unknown ones overhead.

      That's been a function of military maneuvers, both operational and training, for a long, long time. "Don't move sensitive stuff when other peoples sats are overhead".
    • Re:Easy to replicate (Score:5, Informative)

      by Guppy06 (410832) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @12:59AM (#20549049)
      "They didn't see it because the Pakistanis (or Indians) were keeping track of satellites and not moving anything when there were unknown ones overhead."

      It's not about knowing where the satellites are so much as understanding that, altogether, all the spy satellites will only be able to photograph your little corner of the world for a total of maybe 1 minute out of 1440. Make sure that the trucks from Habib's Fissionable Material Shipping Service are always parked in the same place, in the same position after you're done with them and the odds are in your favor that Langley won't see any difference between two consecutive satellite passes. The rest is basic camouflage techniques that had been used to counter reconnaissance aircraft long before Sputnik.

      Realistically, the odds are in your favor if you want to do something small that you don't want satellites to catch and you think a little about what you're doing. They satellites are mostly there to catch gross, macro changes in another country's borders ("Gee, they just moved this tank brigade to their border and a surface fleet has left port!"), but the hopes of catching a single, solitary nuclear device on the move is a crapshot at best. Of course, it may not be an acceptable risk when the stakes involved are you clandestinely testing your first nuclear device, and Langley surely hopes that the fear of "We might see you do it!" gives them second thoughts, but unless they have the Hubble parked at geostationary above your sorry ass, "we have teh sattelitez!" is a bogeyman at best
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        What you say is true. But in the case of Pakistan, they (the US & co) were looking for that single solitary nuclear device, as a test had been expected (due to other intelligence and India's recent tests). So I guess my point is that they did it invisibly despite being looked at the whole time.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Guppy06 (410832)
          "So I guess my point is that they did it invisibly despite being looked at the whole time."

          And my point is that it wasn't "the whole time." An individual satellite only has scant seconds to photograph an area on a pass and won't be able to do it again for at least a day (probably longer). Multiple satellites give you a few more handfuls of seconds to observe during the course of any given day, but the odds are strongly in favor that no satellite will be making a pass at the random time you decide to move
  • uh hem... (Score:5, Funny)

    by djupedal (584558) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @12:08AM (#20548681)
    "Pardon Moi, but does your secret satellite fire lasers?"

    "No, it certainly does not."

    "Oh...good. Then I'll just be orbiting this small camera platform over here next to it and...."ZZZzzzZZzzZzzzzzzZZZZZZZzzaaaaaaappppppppppppPPPPPPPP!!!!!!

    "I thought you said your secret satellite doesn't fire lasers!!??"

    "That's not my secret satellite..."
  • Every story you read about these days is about France, Israel, or the USA (or the three trying to destroy/enrich each other).

    Please help stop it. Humans could put persons on Mars, yet we still quibble about dumb things.

    Brittan created America because they were bitchy.
    France helped America become independent.
    Americans came to be tired.
    Americans think we should all work out our differences. Americans think we should just work it out. Americans think we should not fight unless necessary.

    America does not agr
  • by Darth (29071) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @01:04AM (#20549079) Homepage
    Considering recent history, they probably suspect the worst case scenario for exposing a U.S. spy satellite is a pardon.

  • by boule75 (649166) on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @07:36AM (#20551167) Homepage
    ... and even some videos can be found here :
    http://www.onera.fr/photos/instexp/graves.php [onera.fr]
    http://www.onera.fr/dprs/graves/index.php [onera.fr]

    It also appears that a big, big part of the systems is invisible: a real time calculator, the size of which is unknown. But it may guzzle some Watts in my opinion....

    As for the political aspects of the affair, well... It is certainly very unelegant from the US space authorities to publicize European spy satellites trajectories, and we cannot get accustomed to the sheer amount of unelegance that has flown eastward to Britanny since 2003.

    Next, I doubt amateurs could do what Graves does, especially since trajectories can change, thanks to usefull thrusters. Graves is apparently a real time system...
    And by the way, would it detect incomming balistic missiles too? That may be useful for the likes of Aster.

    We French are generally too ambitious when it comes to weapon systems (not enough money for so many lethal ideas...), but we provide some amusing toys, indeed. I always wondered what were the real possibilities of this ship (http://www.netmarine.net/bat/divers/monge/photos.htm [netmarine.net]), for instance...

    Last but not least: thanks to all Americans that are now bashing French haters, we have heard enough, your support is appreciated. I hope Sarkozy will not be the fool he pretends to be. :-)

  • Blow them up! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Eric Smith (4379) * <eric.brouhaha@com> on Tuesday September 11, 2007 @01:08PM (#20556627) Homepage Journal
    If no one will admit to owning them, then they're useful for the Chinese (or anyone else) as targets in antisatellite weapons tests. Other than the resulting debris, they'd be doing everyone a favor.

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