Wednesday, August 26, 2020

"Modern spy satellites in an age of space wars"

From Deutsche-Welle, August 25:

Space is a battleground for dominance among major powers. About a fifth of all satellites belongs to the military and are used for spying. The US launches two more this year.
For a spy satellite, America's NROL-44  is a massive, open secret — both in size and fact. We know that the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) plans to launch this new classified satellite, and we know its name. We also know that it's part of a class of US spy satellites called Orion (also known as Mentor or Advanced Orion) that began operation in 1995. But its legacy stretches all the way back to America's original CORONA spy satellites in the 1960s and 70s.
At the time of writing, NROL-44 was scheduled to launch on August 27 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 2:16 a.m. EDT (0616 UTC).

It's one of a set of NRO missions this year, which includes NROL-151, a national security satellite launched in January, and NROL 101, which is yet to come.
NROL-44 is a huge signals intelligence, or SIGINT, satellite, says David Baker, a former NASA scientist who worked on Apollo and Shuttle missions, has written numerous books, including US Spy Satellites and is editor of SpaceFlight magazine.

"SIGINT satellites are the core of national government, military security satellites. They are massive things for which no private company has any purpose," says Baker.

NROL-44 is "huge"
The US has launched seven Orion satellites so far. NROL-44 is one of the biggest.
"It weighs more than five tons. It has a huge parabolic antenna which unfolds to a diameter of more than 100 meters in space, and it will go into an equatorial plane of Earth at a distance of about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles)," says Baker.

At that height, an area known as a geosynchronous orbit, NROL-44 will mingle with commercial telecommunications satellites, such as those used for TV broadcasts. Other surveillance satellites orbit at about 500 km from Earth, which is in the region of the International Space Station. Whereas in the very early days, spy satellites flew around the 120-130 km mark, which is barely in space at all.
Spy satellites "hoover up" of hundreds of thousands of cell phone calls or scour the dark web for terrorist activity.

"The move from wired communication to digital and wireless is a godsend to governments because you can't cut into wires from a satellite, but you can literally pick up cell phone towers which are radiating this stuff into the atmosphere. It takes a massive antenna, but you're able to sit over one spot and listen to all the communications traffic," says Baker.

Spy satellites in numbers
In the US, the Union of Concerned Scientists monitors satellite activity and publishes a public database, which lists at least 49 NRO satellites. That's just a fraction of America's 154 military satellites, and it could be more.

There are others listed as "military / civil" or "military / government," which means, if you count them all together, there are between 339 and 485 military satellites in total. But not all of them need necessarily be spy satellites.

Russia is known to have 71 military satellites, and China 63....