30 July 2002



Satellite Blues

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 29, 2002; 7:31 AM

CIA Director George J. Tenet put the National Imagery and Mapping Agency on notice in a recent memo that spy satellites will be used only under "exceptional circumstances" and that a transition to commercial imagery for less urgent targets should begin "as quickly as possible," according to defense analyst Loren B. Thompson.

Tenet's push for greater use of commercial imagery, according to Thompson, comes as delays beset fielding of next-generation Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) spy satellites and demands from the global war of terrorism shorten the service life of current electro-optical Keyhole and radar-imaging Lacrosse satellites.

"When you delay FIA for years, what happens when the existing satellites start blinking off one by one?" says Thompson, a Ph.D. at the Lexington Institute with close ties to defense contractors and the Pentagon. "It means there will be big gaps in coverage. And that explains the urgency of this Tenet memo."

Thompson credits Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, with putting defense contractors on notice that they will lose satellite contracts if they do not meet timetables and budget projections.

For several years, a dedicated group of space enthusiasts who have made a high-tech hobby out of tracking the orbits of super secret U.S. spy satellites believed that the NRO launched the first of its next-generation satellites in 1999. They called it 8X.

They believed 8X was a new spy satellite because it was put in orbit four to five times higher than the Keyholes and Lacrosses. Higher altitudes give satellites greater views and long times to photograph their targets, which are thought to be attributes desired of the new FIA satellites.

But Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist, says the satellite watchers no longer believe 8X is a spy satellite. Given the way the object is pushed and pulled in space by atmospheric drag and solar radiation, he says, whatever is up weighs only about one-tenth as much as the payload on the rocket that launched 8X.

"It's probably either a decoy," Thomson says, "or some sort of debris that we don't understand."
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