Their brothers' keepers: Spy satellites spy on each other

Published 26 January 2009

If you thought spy satellites in the sky only look down at what is going on on Earth, think again; the United States admits two covert inspection satellites got real close to a failed geostationary satellite to see what was wrong with it; experts worry this is the beginning of anti-satellite arms race

In the Republic, Plato poses the question: ”Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will guard the guardians?”). Today we may as well ask, “Who will spy on the spies?” Now there is an answer: Spy satellites will, that’s who. Already, U.S. spy satellites have a new role: as well as watching us they are now spying on each other.

The Pentagon admitted last week that it is using two covert inspection satellites developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to assess damage to a failed geostationary satellite — something no one suspected the United States could do. If such satellites can get that close to a target, they could probably attack it. The Department of Defense says its Mitex micro-satellites, which were launched in 2006, have been jetting around the geostationary ring and have now jointly inspected DSP 23, which was designed to pinpoint clandestine missile launches and nuclear tests, but which stopped working a year after its November 2007 launch. The micro-satellites are trying to nail the problem.

Theresa Hitchens, who becomes director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva this week, is uncomfortable with the secrecy surrounding the launch of the Mitex craft. It raises questions about their future use, including potential anti-satellite (ASAT) missions, she told New Scientist. “I am positive other nations, particularly China, will find this development suspicious — and the U.S. behavior regarding the program as hypocritical, given that Washington is always chastising Beijing for its lack of transparency regarding its space programs and intentions,” she says.