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Belmont Club

And now, micro satellites

January 15th, 2009 - 3:08 pm

For the past two years — so far as anyone knows — the US has had a pair of small undetectable satellites working in buddy pairs to inspect and possibly repair its expensive sensors in space. Wired reports:

In June 2006, a Delta 2 rocket launched a pair of Darpa spacecraft into geosynchronous orbit. The stated goal of the “MiTex” (Micro-satellite Technology Experiment) project was to have the 225-kilogram ships inspect each other, while twirling around the planet. Equipped with advanced thrusters, batteries and solar panels, the two tiny satellites were meant to be more maneuverable, and longer-lasting, than almost anything else in its class. For two years — as far as we know — the pair did their inspection pas de deux, tens of thousands of miles up. … Then, the Defense Support Program DSP 23 missile warning satellite failed. It was a major blow because it carried “a sensor package designed to detect whether rogue nuclear powers like Iran or North Korea were conducting secret nuclear tests in deep space,” Covault writes. “That capability [died] with the loss of DSP 23.”

But it gave the MiTex craft a new mission: find out why the 5,000-pound orbiter dropped dead.

The Space Review reported in 2006 that “right now, a pair of mysterious, highly-mobile microsatellites dubbed ‘MiTEx’ is roaming about in geostationary orbit (GEO). Their mission and their capabilities are unknown; even their orbital position is classified.”

Information on the microsatellites themselves is virtually nonexistent. Calls by the Center for Defense Information to DARPA were quickly met with “no comment”, and Space News writer Jeremy Singer’s inquiries also went unanswered. This is peculiar since the DART and XSS-11 missions, both of which tested technology with anti-satellite applications, have already flown. Seeing as these missions were conducted largely within the public eye, one has to wonder what MiTEx is doing that must remain so secret.

But their technical characteristics are interesting to say the least. First of all, they have rockets derived from interplaneterary mission engines which be fired thousands of times, large fuel tanks and powerful solar arrays. Yet they are so small as to be virtually undetectable by radar or visual at their operating altitudes.


The episode provides a glimpse into the highly secret world of information warfare: the capability to send robotic workers to the signal towers in outer space. This is good thing, right? Don’t be silly. It’s evidence of American aggression, something the Obama administration may soon be called on to review.

“One cannot escape the fact that this technology, while potentially extremely useful in diagnostics of sick and ailing birds, also has tremendous potential for ASAT [anti-satellite] missions. It’s stealthy, highly maneuverable, potentially lethal in more ways than one — with potential kinetic, electronic or laser-killing payloads,” Theresa Hitchens, the former director of the Center for Defense Information, tells Danger Room.

The Chinese — who have taken American heat for their own ASAT test — “will complain to the international community,” says Greg Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The argument against developing devices like ‘MiTex’ is that it may precipitate a war in space in which America has the most to lose. What is less frequently pointed out is that a technological enemy could precipitate such a conflict unilaterally anyway, precisely because America has the most to lose. What’s the mission of the small satellites exactly? Who knows. But the truth is out there.

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don’t need to see any more
To know that
I can read your mind

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