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GEO illustration
Geosynchronous orbit, through which the disabled DSP-23 satellite is now drifting, is filled with hundreds of communications and other satellites from dozens of companies and countries. (credit: AGI)

The ongoing saga of DSP Flight 23

<< page 1: long distance detective work

Speculation and rogue states

Two of the most glaring errors in reporting on the saga of DSP-23 come from the same Spaceflight Now article published last week that revealed the use of MiTEx to inspect DSP-23:

At nearly 25,000 miles high, objects in geosynchronous orbit are too small to be easily seen optically or by radar.

This sentence was probably originally intended to read “very small objects in geosynchronous orbit” as it is obvious from the work of ISON and even the backyard amateur community mentioned before that most objects larger than a basketball in GEO can be tracked fairly easily, although those that are non-reflective or have unusual orbits can be difficult to track consistently. Further into the same story is the following:

In fact, DSP 23 itself carried a White House-mandated sensor package designed to detect whether rogue nuclear powers like Iran or North Korea were conducting secret nuclear tests in deep space.

Hopefully, that statement was another misquote by the author and originally was intended to read “secret nuclear tests from deep space”. During the Cold War, critics of arms control, and Test Ban Treaties in particular, used the potential for nuclear tests in deep space as one of the arguments that such a treaty was unverifiable. Even though the United States and Soviet Union clearly had the technology to test nuclear weapons in space, there was little incentive to do so, given the huge costs, very limited ability to take precise measurements of the blast and/or diagnose any abnormalities (which of course is the biggest reason to test in the first place), and the very likely probability of damage to satellites. In fact, the only possible reasons to consider a nuclear test in deep space is to either demonstrate to the world you have the capability or to severely cripple a significant portion of the geosynchronous satellites (which didn’t exist at the time much of these arguments were raised).

Thinking even for a second that either Iran or North Korea, neither of which has demonstrated the ability even to launch an object into low Earth orbit, would attempt to test nuclear devices in space to avoid detection is ludicrous. To avoid detection, a nuclear test in space would have to be done out of the line of sight of the Earth—otherwise the resulting pulse throughout the entire electromagnetic spectrum would be instantly noticeable. This means testing behind the Moon is the only possibility, and if anyone has a logical argument as to how Iran or North Korea would get an object there and record measurements it would make a more entertaining story.

Much criticism, some of it warranted, has been leveled at the US government and military for their official silence and lack of disclosed information about this ongoing event.

It is also difficult to understand how DSP-23 could be crucial to monitoring nuclear tests from either of these States on Earth. There is already an extensive, world-wide network of nuclear detonation monitoring sensors. Some parts, such as the seismic and infrasound detectors, are maintained by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. Others, such as those onboard the Global Positional System (GPS) satellites and DSP satellites, are maintained by the US military. The failure of DSP-23 does not represent a significant detriment in these existing capabilities. In fact, due to its operational location over Africa, the field of view of DSP-23 provides only above the horizon coverage of Iran, so using it to monitor Iran for surface or underground nuclear detonations from this location is a mostly pointless task. From this same position North Korea is on almost the opposite side of the globe.

Full disclosure and responsible actors

Much criticism, some of it warranted, has been leveled at the US government and military for their official silence and lack of disclosed information about this ongoing event. Every state does have the sovereign right to protect certain types of information that are essential to national security, and the US government considers the position of its satellites to fall into this category. Since the US military maintains the most complete source of public data on all objects in Earth orbit, it logically has the right to withhold information from that archive that it deems classified or harmful to its national security.

However, with every decision comes responsibility. In the case of an operational satellite, a state that withholds positional data on that satellite’s location from other actors in the same orbit implicitly assumes responsibility for ensuring the satellite is operated in a safe and sustainable manner and stays out of the way of any other objects in its path. States even have a strong incentive to carry through on this duty, since allowing your “invisible” satellite to collide with another object both defeats the purpose of trying to keep it hidden and likely will render it militarily useless.

Responsibility for uncontrolled satellites is less clear. While the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects does not specifically contain provisions for on-orbit collisions, Articles VI and VII of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty do state the following:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space… whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.

Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space…and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air or in outer space…

Those principles include the following responsibilities:

States Party to the Treaty…shall be guided by the principle of co-operation and mutual assistance and shall conduct all their activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty.

States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space…so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.

If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space…would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space…it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment.

A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space…would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space…may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment.

As with most international legal documents, the language used in the Outer Space Treaty deliberately leaves a significant amount of maneuvering room. And historically, all states have deemed certain space activities and objects national secrets and hidden them from the world to the maximum extent possible. Some might even make the argument that this has been done for long enough and consistently enough to have developed into customary international law. So while the United States has perhaps not violated the letter of the law in this regard, it is perhaps dragging its feet on complying with the full spirit and intent of the law.

If the United States truly wishes to provide evidence in support its position that it is the model for a peaceful, responsible actor in space, then it should publish the position of DSP-23 and provide all future updates, just like any other piece of space debris in the catalog.

This is very important for the space security debate. Most significantly, the United States was one of the loudest voices among the chorus of states condemning the Chinese as an example of a “bad actor” in space for their 2007 anti-satellite test. The United States also boasted the great lengths (by its own standards) that it went to comply with both the letter and spirit of international law during its destruction of the ailing USA 193. The United States did indeed brief the operation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and conducted the operation in such a manner to minimize to the greatest extent possible any potentially long-lived debris. But many observers wonder to what degree this openness was forced by the ongoing public debate and media inquisition sparked by the amateur tracking of the object. And still to this day, the United States government refuses to fully reveal the calculations and methodology that proved that the reentry of the satellite did indeed pose a threat to humans and thus justified its destruction.

The use of the MiTEx pair to inspect DSP-23 also adds another interesting twist to the space security debate. As has been already pointed out by other commentators, states such as Russia and China will undoubtedly argue that this move as evidence that the United States is planning for or already has anti-satellites weapons in orbit. The history of SAINT, combined with the Air Force’s original desires for anti-satellite capability and America’s official policy of maintaining the right to neutralize adversaries’ space capabilities, provides circumstantial evidence to support this argument.

But as argued in my previous article on the issue of the Chinese BX-1 microsatellite (see “China’s BX-1 microsatellite: a litmus test for space weaponization”, The Space Review, October 20, 2008), these technologies and satellites often serve as a litmus test to reveal positions and intentions on the issue of weaponization of space. Others have also referred to it, perhaps more accurately, as a Rorschach test on space weapons. Using either analogy, it is predictable that each state would refer to its own actions as peaceful and the other’s as potentially dangerous.

If the United States truly wishes to provide evidence in support its position that it is the model for a peaceful, responsible actor in space, then it should publish the position of DSP-23 and provide all future updates, just like any other piece of space debris in the catalog. A non-responsive satellite which is instead drifting uncontrollably in the GEO belt has little military utility, and there is no longer any meaningful reason to continue to classify its position. The United States should also publish the positions of the MiTEx satellites to show that they are indeed only being used for their stated peaceful purposes. Attempting to hide their locations only encourages speculation and allows other States to claim they are indeed weapons to suit their own geopolitical purposes.

If future inspection satellites are orbited by the US military, the United States should consider making their services available to other States and space actors. The United States could even charge for those services as part of its planned Commercial and Foreign Entities (CFE) Phase 3, which plans to offer services such as analysis of space surveillance data products. Certainly there could be no harm to national security if these satellites are indeed conducting a legitimate, peaceful mission. Additionally, allowing other states to utilize such satellites could remove the imperative to develop and launch their own inspection satellites, thus minimizing the proliferation of the capability, which would certainly be to the best interests of the US military.

As with the events leading up to the destruction of USA 193 in February 2008, the best and most reliable sources of information on the saga of DSP-23 have so far been from the amateur and scientific satellite tracking community. That is both inspiring and disappointing.

The continuing saga of DSP-23 was, and still is, yet another chance for the United States to prove that it is a responsible actor in space. So far, its performance has been somewhat underwhelming.

There is also a measure of criticism to be leveled at the news media over this event. Several stories have been published parroting the statement that DSP-23 somehow was designed to detect Iranian or North Korean nuclear tests in deep space without asking how that could be possible (or indeed even worth spending taxpayer dollars on).

The continuing saga of DSP-23 was, and still is, yet another chance for the United States to prove that it is a responsible actor in space. So far, its performance has been somewhat underwhelming for a state that claims to be the epitome of a good actor in space. And it is a reminder to all states and space actors that with the attempt to hide the positions of satellites and information on their status comes a significant responsibility.


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