Observers track secret satellites launched Tuesday
BY JUSTIN RAY
SPACEFLIGHT NOW

Posted: December 3, 2003

Serving as space-age sleuths tracking spy satellites high above Earth, a band of sky-watchers scattered around the globe are offering their insights into a clandestine cargo launched Tuesday atop an Atlas rocket from California.

Linked by the Internet, the hobbyists eagerly awaited the launch ever since a similar rocket mission in 2001 resulted in something highly unexpected.

That earlier flight and Tuesday's were believed to have carried new satellites for the Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS.

But unlike 11 previous NOSS missions launched successfully between 1971 and 1996 that each deployed three satellites in a close triangular formation, the 2001 flight only released two spacecraft.

As a result, many believed a third craft failed to properly deploy.

Tuesday's launch would potentially clear up the mystery -- if three satellites were released, it would lend strong evidence to say the 2001 launch suffered a deployment failure.

Within hours of Tuesday's 1004 GMT (2:04 a.m. PST; 5:04 a.m. EST) liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, observers in Europe got the first chance to see how many new objects were soaring overhead.

The answer: only two spacecraft.

By Tuesday evening, hobbyists elsewhere were confirming only two satellites were visible.

"Several observers have reported seeing two NOSS, but nobody has reported seeing three, so I now believe that this and the 2001 duo are third generation NOSS -- the first to employ two satellites instead of three," said Ted Molczan, an experienced and respected hobbyist satellite observer from Toronto, Canada.

NOSS satellites are used by the U.S. government to track ships sailing across the world. The previous generations of NOSS satellites featured three craft from each launch flying in the shape of a triangle, working together to determine the positions of vessels below.

"They are believed to detect radio transmissions from ships at sea, and analyze the signals to triangulate on the precise location of the transmitter. This enables the U.S. government to locate and track foreign vessels of interest," Molczan said.

But with only two satellites deployed on each of the past two Atlas launches, the system may have changed. Observers believe it is unlikely that both missions experienced deployment malfunctions.

Based upon his tracking in 2001 and Tuesday night, Molczan says the orbiting craft from both launches appear the same.

"Visually, the similarity is striking -- especially in that the two NOSS differ greatly in brightness. Tonight, everyone who reported observing them noted that the trailing NOSS was one-to-two magnitudes brighter than the leading NOSS.

"The 2001 NOSS behaved similarly soon after their launch, but once they became operational, the large differences in brightness became much less common.

"The initial spacing of the NOSS appears to be about the same as that of the 2001 launch.

"If 2001 is a guide to this NOSS pair, then we can expect them to make a number of maneuvers over the next couple of months, and to take about six months to settle into their final orbits."

For its part, the U.S. government is obviously silent about the spacecraft. The National Reconnaissance Office -- the secretive government agency responsible for designing and operating the U.S. fleet of spy satellites -- acknowledged that both launches carried its payloads. But all details about the craft and their mission are not officially revealed to the public.

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