Space: August 19, 2005

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For many years, people in the American intelligence community have been trying to cancel the Misty spy satellite project. This is a stealthy (difficult to spot from the ground) spy bird that will eventually cost over $10 billion. Many people in the intel business believe there are more important projects to spend that money on. But Misty has many fans in Congress, and has so far survived. So far.

Cold War era weapons, designed to fight a foe (the Soviet Union), that no longer exists, have been getting killed off with increasing regularity over the past decade. Many others have been threatened, including some that are supposed to be top secret. A prime example is a new spy satellite like Misty. This was a late Cold War effort to build a stealthy spy satellite. 

Back when there was a Soviet Union, there was a need for spy satellites that were difficult to track from the ground. You can see spy satellites from the ground. They often have orbits that bring them within a few hundred kilometers of the ground, making them even easier to track. Spy satellites can be detected by radar, and seen (if you know where to look) with telescopes. Spy satellites can change their orbits (via small rockets, and a supply of fuel), thus you have to keep an eye on them if you want to know what the birds will be watching. This is exactly what the Soviet Union did. They had thousands of people, and billions of dollars worth of equipment dedicated to tracking foreign spy satellites. By doing this, the Russians knew when the foreign (usually American) photo satellites would be overhead. The Russians made sure they did not do anything, that they wanted to keep secret, when those American spy birds were watching. American intelligence already knew, from spies and defectors, that Russia was able to keep many projects secret because of their satellite tracking system. Thus the desire to develop a spy satellite that would be difficult to track, and would be out of (Russian) sight often enough to get a look at some of the hidden Russian projects. 

With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union is gone, the Russians have much less money for secret projects. Besides, Russia is pretty wide open now, compared to the old Soviet days. Much more difficult to hide stuff. So why keep going with Misty? Part of it has to do with the satellite builders, their lobbying efforts and Congressional allies. Part of it has to do with fear that China, or some other nation, may successfully adopt the old Soviet techniques, making a stealth satellite still necessary. But the pros believe Misty is no longer needed, while the politicians still want. Guess who is likely to win this one?

 


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