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U.S. secret satellites make 16 runs a day over Iranian nuclear sites, but such comprehensive intel may not last the decade, as space recon dwindles

Image: Artist's concept of U.S. Advanced KH-11 reconnaissance satellite shows resem- blance to Hubble Space Telescope and the ability to image off-track. Actual recons have solar arrays parallel to tele- scope barrel. Several older Advanced KH-11s and Lacrosse space-based radars are nearing the end of their service life.

Concerns are growing that 50% or more of the KH-11 optical and Lacrosse imaging radar satellites that make up the core of secret U.S. space reconnaissance operations will die before smaller, more modern replacements can be launched. A new program, however, may be forming to stem this trend.

Fears over the loss of future secret imaging capability are growing as the need for detailed pictures of Iranian and Chinese weapons developments is increasing.

U.S. intelligence officers have been concerned for years that China, especially, is trying thwart satellite intelligence by using aggressive camouflage techniques, Central Intelligence Agency managers say.

As a stopgap measure to limit any recon shortfall, the White House and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are assessing development of a limited "imaging gap-filler" type spacecraft program to bridge the span between existing satellites and smaller, newer ones promised under the troubled Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program.

The problem is exacerbated by delays that will push launch of the first FIA optical spacecraft to at least 2009, if not later, while Lockheed Martin takes over from Boeing on the contract (AW&ST Sept. 5, 2005, p. 23).

With a record eight or nine large imaging spacecraft now operational, the concern is not over current capability, says Ted Molczan, a respected Toronto-based military space analyst. Rather, the problem is the next several years, when aging spacecraft now living on borrowed time begin to die as Iranian and Chinese reconnaissance targets grow.

Overhead imaging is also a mounting concern to Israel, which has just launched its own new imaging reconnaissance satellite. That Eros B spacecraft promptly imaged in great detail an important Syrian dam on the Euphrates River—a high-tech message to Israel's primary adversary in the region (see photo at left, and p. 26).

Four of the eight major U.S. NRO optical and radar imaging spacecraft currently aloft are 1015 years old. Already well beyond their design lives, these spacecraft could expire at any time. Each of the nearly 25,000-lb. spacecraft cost approximately $1 billion to build and $500 million to launch.

Two others are 5-6 years old—essentially middle age. The remaining single new Advanced KH-11 and Lacrosse imaging radars aloft are the last of their breed. Design lifetimes for these spacecraft are in the 7-8-year range. But the system needs more than two long-life satellites toward 2010.

New engineering measures are underway at NRO and the contractors to further extend the life of these satellites to the greatest extent possible. There could also be a ninth large secret imaging spacecraft also entering middle age—a stealthy variant of the KH-11 launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on a Titan in May 1999.

The much different FIA imaging radar spacecraft remain under Boeing, and may be closer to launch. They would replace the Lacrosse space- based imaging radars operational since 1988 with 1-meter (3.3-ft.) or better resolution.

The amount of coverage the current four KH-11 imaging spacecraft and four Lacrosse radars provide over Iran illustrates the intensity of the monitoring underway on this crisis target.

The satellites cannot see underground, where much Iranian nuclear work is done; but they can detect both physical and thermally related changes occurring just hours apart aboveground, where everything going underground must appear at least briefly.

The KH-11s—which are at roughly 400-km. (250-mi.) altitude with maximum resolutions of 810 cm. (3-4 in.) and lesser infrared resolution— pass over Iranian nuclear facilities eight times every 24 hr. Two of them overfly Iranian facilities within an hour of each other around 10 a.m. local time, followed by two others within about an hour of 1 p.m. local time. These overflights are timed to Sun angles.

Two of the optical spacecraft then overfly the Iranian sites again in the 8:30-10:30 p.m. timeframe and twice again in the 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. period local time, when the infrared sensors are more useful. Also, the optical spacecraft have significant slant-range capability.

While these optical/infrared spacecraft are relatively predictable to the Iranians because of their Sun-synchronous orbits, the four Lacrosse imaging radars are not.

Flying at about 650 km., Lacrosse spacecraft overly Iranian nuclear sites 8-9 times a day and are overhead of the Iranian nuclear sites as frequently as every 2-4 hr., while at other times their passes may be more bunched up.

Overall, however, there's rarely a 2-3-hr. block of time any day when U.S. radar or optical reconnaissance satellites cannot be looking at Iranian sites, if the U.S. want to image them that often.

This level of target "revisit" capability is in danger of being seriously eroded—not only for Iran but also for China and North Korea—when the older satellites begin to fade without new ones in place.

Meanwhile, the National Reconnaissance Office has also been having different trouble getting even the spacecraft that are built actually launched.

A year ago at this time, five secret NRO missions were on the Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB launch schedules for liftoff by this spring (AW&ST May 9, 2005, p. 24). But only one of these missions—the final Advanced KH-11 optical/infrared spacecraft—has been launched. The others represent a range of missions, including signals intelligence and advanced technology development. Their delay has been caused by a mix of technical problems along with a labor strike at Boeing.

That situation has placed even more pressure on Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and NRO to succeed with the first flight of a Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle from Vandenberg, now set for June 27. This mission will carry what outside analysts believe could be a new $500-million class eavesdropping spacecraft. If so, the mission could be especially important for monitoring terrorist communications.

The heat is also on because the flight will mark the first launch in decades of a new modern class of heavy booster from Vandenberg. The flight also aims to validate tens of millions of dollars in major engineering changes to the massive SLC-6 complex originally configured to launch the shuttle from the West Coast.

More than a dozen accomplished civilian analysts monitor the movements of the secret U.S. reconnaissance satellites, amassing about 20,000 observations annually, Molczan said. The most active of these observers are in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, U.K. and U.S. The group exchanges daily mathematical assessments, which add up to new information on how the secret U.S. recons are being commanded. Some of these analysts make about 8,000 observations a year measuring orbital changes to within 0.001 of a deg. and 0.05 sec., he says.

For example, this work recently found that the spacecraft designated USA 161, an advanced KH-11 launched in 2001, had just maneuvered to better synchronize its operations with another KH designated USA 186 launched last October, the last planned. These adjustments, perhaps esoteric to outsiders, actually equate to targeting strategy for key U.S. intelligence objectives, including chokepoints for U.S. forces such as the Gulf of Aden, where cruise missiles can threaten ships.

This article appears in the 15 May 2006 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology and is republished here courtesy of Aviation Week.

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