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U.S. Navy Satellites Hijacked
by James Dunnigan
May 31, 2009

Brazil and the U.S. have been arresting people who have been illegally using obsolete, but still functioning, U.S. Navy FLTSATCOM communications satellites. The FLTSATCOM (Fleet Satellite Communications System) were eight communications satellites launched between 1978-89. Two of the launches failed, and FLTSATCOM was replaced by the UFO in the 1990s. Although the FLTSATCOM birds were built to last for seven years, two of them are still operational twenty years later.

As the navy stopped using FLTSATCOM in the late 1990s (shifting over to the more efficient UFO satellites), ham radio users in Brazil discovered that the FLTSATCOM satellites had no security on them. If you knew the frequency and had a satellite dish, you could send a signal to the FLTSATCOM satellite, that would then automatically be rebroadcast by the satellite over a wide area below. While the navy sent encrypted messages (which sound like static, for anyone picking it up below on ham radio gear), the Brazilians found that they could simply use FLTSATCOM to communicate over a wide area (the interior of the country) that lacked telephones. FLTSATCOM birds had multiple transponders, making several simultaneous conversations possible. There was no security because, back in the 1970s,the remote possibility  of homemade satellite dishes using FLTSATCOM, did not seem to warrant the additional hassle of adding passwords to transmit from the satellites.

Hijacking FLTSATCOM transponders did not happen in the U.S., or most other countries, because illegal users could easily be found by the police, arrested and punished. One Brazilian migrant in the United States used a FLTSATCOM satellite, was caught, and fined $20,000. But in Brazil, for years, the government ignored the illegal FLTSATCOM users, and the U.S. Navy didn't notice it because they were rarely using the FLTSATCOM birds, as the newer (and more powerful) UFO satellites were preferred. But eventually, the U.S. Navy did find out. Since the two FLTSATCOM satellites still operational are still U.S. government property, and their communications capabilities, no matter how limited, were considered available for emergencies, the U.S. asked Brazil to enforce laws about illegal satellite use. The publicity from this will probably cause ham radio (and electronics) enthusiasts in many countries to risk a visit from the Space Police, and try communicating via one of the FLTSATCOM birds.

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