Tracking the NRO

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Amateur satellite spotters can track everything government spymasters blast into orbit. Except the stealth bird codenamed Misty.

Wired Magazine has an interesting article on satellite observers who congregate on a Web site called Heavens-Above and a mailing list called SeeSat-L. These amateurs exchange information and expertise on orbiting satellites, often, it seems outwitting anything the NRO and The Aerospace Corporation throw up.
For two decades, they have played this high tech game of hide-and-seek. By coordinating their efforts, amateur observers in Europe, North America, and South Africa monitor satellites at different phases of their journeys and extrapolate the precise dimensions of their orbits.
Most observe part-time from their balconies and backyards with equipment available at RadioShack – and spot almost anything the NRO, with its estimated $7 billion budget, blasts into space.
I live right in the middle of downtown Portland, Oregon. I can spot satellites with $30 binoculars inside of 15 minutes. You can too. Here’s how. lists satellite spotting resources:
  • Orbital Elements
    • is the primary distributor of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) 2-line orbital elements and related data, replacing NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Orbital Information Group (OIG), which permanently ceased operations on 2005 Mar 31.
    • T.S. Kelso provides orbital elements and related software via his CelesTrak website.
    • NASA’s Human Space Flight website provides predicted ISS and Shuttle elements, which take into account planned orbit manoeuvres.
    • AMSAT’s WWW server provides elements of satellites of interest primarily to radio amateurs.
  • On-line Predictions
    • Heavens-Above, in Munich, Germany provides prediction services for bright satellites, including the ISS, the shuttle, and Iridium satellites. You can either input your own coordinates, use a nearby city or determine your coordinates using their data base. Further information for beginning observers can be found here
    • If your web-browser has Java capabilities, you can now observe over 500 satellites in real time in 3-D by going to Marshall Flight Center’s Lift-Off 3-D JTrack .
    • You can also find predicted sky-tracks for the ISS, shuttle (when it’s up) and some other bright satellites at Marshall Flight Center’s Lift-Off J-Track 2.5.
    • NASA’s Office of Spaceflight is providing ISS viewing predictions for over 1000 locations worldwide.
  • Satellite Observing
In other space news, the Air Force selected Lockheed for its multibillion-dollar Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) Mission Operations System contract, worth a cool $2.1 billion over 10 years. Satellites not included.
They’re celebrating in Bethesda this week. Lockheed got another contract for a $2.5 billion four-satellite constellation. The Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)spacecraft is a militarized version of the A2100 civilian satellite and mission-control system. Lockheed and partner Northrop Grumman were selected over a team that included Raytheon, Boeing, AT&T and General Dynamics.
TSAT was to consist of a ring of five satellites cross-linked by lasers to make the network less vulnerable to potential disruptions on the ground. Turns out there were a few glitches and cost overruns.
The final price tag on the entire TSAT program is expected to reach $14-18 billion through 2016, reports Defense Industry Daily. That would include the satellite, the ground operations system, the satellite operations center and the cost of operations and maintenance. Maybe it will be less than that. Not.
By mid-2007, the U.S. Air Force will either decide to build the TSAT system on its current schedule and launch in 2012-2013, or postpone TSAT, take stopgap measures and add Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites 4 & 5 to the three slated for launch from 2009-2012.

“The United States has invested $200 billion over the past four decades developing and operating its supersecret spy satellite programs. …The NRO is now so beset by problems that there is no guarantee America will be able to maintain its huge advantage in space. Failed management, bungled technical assessments, and repeated engineering and testing failures have plagued the NRO for years. Boeing’s troubled $25 billion Future Imagery Architecture program–the NRO’s next-generation satellite system – still isn’t off the ground”.

We weren’t completely shocked to hear that Boeing is seeking about $500 million from the National Reconnaissance Office in termination fees associated with the Future Imagery Architecture spy satellite program. The NRO cancelled the optical portion of Boeing’s multi-billion dollar FIA contract last year after becoming fed up with the company’s technical struggles and that lead to innumerable delays and soaring costs.

Boeing’s $6.8 billion Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS or “jitters”) contract may also be canceled due to non-performance. It uses software defined radio for voice, data, and video and was part of the U.S. Army’s $120+ billion Future Combat System. Whose side are they on?

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, February 1st, 2006 at 2:32 am .

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