Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If we're talking spy satellites, the answer this week became "U.S. satellites," two of which completed a first-of-its kind manoeuvre that had wide-ranging ramifications for all satellites currently in orbit.
We should note that the Pentagon admonition is only the first time the agency has publicly commented on satellite-on-satellite spying. It's probably been done, and done a lot, for a while now.
The satellites in question for this story, called MiTEx micro-satellites, are the direct result of work done at the DARPA project, whose internet-, gadget- and weapon-creating ways need no introduction here.
And they weren't checking out foreign satellites, at least not yet. In this case, two MiTEx micro-satellites were evaluating the failed U.S. 2,250kg DSP 23 missile tracking satellite, which had launched successfully in November 2007, but failed soon after reaching a geostationary orbit. Its orbit has slowly degraded since then, endangering other geostationary satellites that share the space.
The controversy arrives when you start thinking about what's happening up there, right now. If a satellite can manoeuvre to within striking distance of another satellite, and can dance around it without crashing, what's stopping it from actually striking it some day?
Nothing really, which is why the UN is raising a stink. "I am positive other nations, particularly China, will find this development suspicious," said Theresa Hitchens, the incoming director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. "And the US behaviour regarding the program is hypocritical, given that Washington is always chastising Beijing for its lack of transparency regarding its space programs and intentions."
Regardless, the fact remains that the U.S. has a class of micro-satellite in orbit today that can spy on, track, manoeuvre around and eventually destroy other satellites. Just leave the Sirius XM ones alone, ok? I'm sorry, honestly, but I'm one of the few people who actually enjoys having the pricing plans changed on a whim while channels disappear and reappear at random. [New Scientist]