RE: French Say 'Non' to U.S. Disclosure of Secret Satellites

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Tue Jun 12 2007 - 14:04:08 EDT

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    Bob Clark posted:
    > This seems to be saying to me there could still be some U.S. 
    > surveillance satellites that have not been revealed. Then 
    > possibly there could be satellites with the very high 
    > resolution I was speculating about.
    I can see how the following excerpt could create that impression:
    "We have discussed the Graves results with our American colleagues and
    highlighted the discrepancies between what we have found and what is published
    by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network," said one French defense official
    responsible for the Graves operation. "They told us, 'If we have not published
    it in our catalogue, then it does not exist.' So I guess we have been tracking
    objects that do not exist. I can tell you that some of these non-existent
    objects have solar arrays.
    Col. Yves Blin, deputy head of the space division at the French joint defense
    staff, said France would wait until it had acquired, with the help of the German
    radar, further information about the 20 to 30 secret satellites in question
    before beginning serious negotiations with the United States on a common
    approach for publishing satellite orbit information."
    I detect a good deal of hyperbole and posturing, which can be discounted with a
    knowledge of what is, and is not, in the official U.S. satellite catalogue.
    The catalogue lists the more 31,600 objects tracked by the U.S. since the
    beginning of the space age. It has received sufficient independent scrutiny to
    state with confidence that virtually all launches to orbit have been accounted
    for. I recall (vaguely) that there may be one or two controversies regarding
    launches that may have reached orbit in the early years of space flight, but may
    not have been catalogued, but nothing in recent history.
    That said, the claim attributed to the U.S., "If we have not published it in our
    catalogue, then it does not exist", is hyperbole. U.S. sensors cannot detect
    objects in LEO less than several centimetres in size, so there must be millions
    of tiny objects, almost exclusively debris, that cannot be catalogued. There are
    also many pieces of debris sufficiently large to track, but which cannot be
    confidently matched to a specific parent object or launch, so they are not
    included in the public catalogue. Also, a number of old payloads have been lost
    for years at a time; however, these have been mainly small objects in high
    orbits. Recent advances in sensor technology has enabled many such lost objects
    to be found, and their catalogue entries updated.
    Apart from the understandable lack of data on small debris, and some long-lost
    objects, how can we reconcile the claim that Graves (which tracks LEO objects)
    is tracking 20 to 30 objects not found in the catalogue, some of which have
    solar arrays? 
    The answer is that the U.S. catalogue omits orbital data for hundreds of U.S.
    (and a few Japanese) military and intelligence satellites. There are entries for
    those objects in the catalogue, giving their catalogue number, international
    designation, a pseudo name, date of launch, and not much else; in place of the
    orbital data and RCS value, is the phrase, "NO ELEMENTS AVAILABLE".
    So the challenge for non-U.S. satellite trackers, like the French Graves, or
    hobbyists, is to independently identify the objects that we detect and track.
    The current list of hobbyist tracked objects numbers about 185. We have
    identified all 106 that are in LEO and MEO, despite their "NO ELEMENTS
    AVAILABLE" status in the official U.S. catalogue. We have also identified quite
    a few of the remaining 79 objects we track, which are in high orbits.
    If France will publish orbital elements from its Graves system, I would expect
    to find, most (if not all) of the 20 to 30 that they cannot identify, among our
    106 LEO and MEO objects, all of which we have identified. It is not that we are
    more intelligent than the Graves analysts; it is just that we have been doing
    this far longer than they have. 
    The U.S. began to withhold orbital data on most of its military and intelligence
    satellites in June of 1983, and hobbyist efforts to keep track of those objects
    (and those subsequently launched), began almost immediately, and reached its
    present level of capability years before the development of Graves.
    Ted Molczan
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