Space: December 16, 2004


: Congressional opposition to building a third stealth satellite has come out into the open. The Misty satellites are designed to change their orbits, and be difficult to spot from earth. Using some of the same technology found in stealth aircraft, the Misty birds avoid being picked by radar from below. Misty thus is unpredictable. All other satellites, even the ones that can change their orbits, can be seen from earth with telescopes or radars, and have their orbits, and positions, predicted. 

Unpredictability is important, because, during the Cold War, Russia, and its allies, used knowledge of when American satellites were overhead to carry out deceptions. If you wanted to test a new ship, aircraft or missile and not be seen by the Americans, you only brought the stuff out when the American birds were not overhead. As a result of these efforts, Russia designed, built and tested new ships, aircraft and armored vehicles without American intelligence agencies finding out. The full extent of this deception became known after the Cold War ended. Russia still practices these deception techniques, as do many other nations, like China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. 

The satellite deception program was known, and considered serious enough that, during the 1980s, the first Misty satellite was designed, and launched in 1990. Misty II was launched in 1999, to basically replace the failing Misty I. The problem with Misty III is the price tag; $9.5 billion. The original estimate was $5 billion. The reasons for the increase are, of course, classified. In fact, the entire project, for good reason, is highly classified. Word only got out because some prominent members of Congress want to eliminate Misty III. They are apparently not convinced of the need, but because of the secrecy of the project, cannot discuss any details of why they disagree. The only details that have come out are the name of the project, the price of the new bird, and that the system only takes pictures during the day, and in clear weather. That last item may not be true, but the truth of the matter is highly classified. 

In other words, while all admit there is a use for a stealth satellite, some who are privy to the details feels the capability is not worth $9.5 billion. We probably wont find out the truth of the matter for many years. Then again, some intrepid reporter may dig up some meaningful details. While the main open argument is that in a war on terrorists, stealthy satellites are not needed, terrorists are not the only foe we have out there. China is building many of its new ships in large sheds, to keep prying satellite eyes away. But eventually those ships have to come out, and the sooner you can get pictures, the sooner you will know what you are up against. And the sooner you will be able to deal with that. 

Even North Korea, with its network of underground factories and weapons storage, has to move stuff in and out of these facilities. Without Misty up there, the North Koreans can keep secret what is coming and going. But maybe Misty is having problems no one, except the satellite controllers, and some members of Congress, know about.