Pentagon Mitex Satellites Are the First to Actively Spy... On Other Satellites!

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 maneuver that had wide-ranging ramifications for all satellites currently in orbit. Update.

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. 5,000lb. 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 maneuver 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 behavior 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, maneuver 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.

UPDATE: We have spoken with Theresa Hitchens regarding an inaccurate quote attributed to her in this post. The quote attributed to her was incorrectly applied, and has been redacted due to its inaccuracy (above). The quote was given to Wired BEFORE she assumed the attributed role at the UN, and did not in any way mean she was speaking for the UN, or even for the UNIDIR, a think tank where Hitchens worked before arriving at the UN. We apologize to Ms. Hitchens for the error. — J.L.

[New Scientist]