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Saving Satellites From Terrorists

Clark Lindsey points out another boneheaded move by Congress in the name of "national security":

Congress, in its collective ham-fisted oafishness, dictated after 9/11 that the government place restrictions on access to spacecraft tracking information. Apparently, this will keep terrorists from shooting down comsats with RPGs...

... Congress once again shows that it is incapable of making sensible policies with respect to space that carefully and effectively targets the particular problem without causing devastating collateral damage to nearby legitimate activity.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2005 05:50 AM
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Not that I agree with the law, but lets get the perspective right. The issue about tracking satellites is about hiding from them, not shooting them down.

Posted by Leland at February 23, 2005 07:09 AM

Actually, according to a letter to the editor published in Space News a few weeks ago, this was not a boneheaded move by Congress in the interest of national security.

According to David Finkleman, who was until recently the chief scientist at NORAD's orbital analysis division, "A five-year journey to expand orbit data access to non-U.S. government entities climaxed in PL 108-136, Section 91{4}, in the fall of 2003." Note the phrase "EXPAND orbit data access to non-US government entities..."

Finkleman also wrote: "The implementation described on the Space-Track Web site could end value-added subsequent dissemination, encourage alternative satellite catalogs (marginalizing the United States' unique capability), impair international efforts to mitigate space debris and prohibit all who use DoD space surveillance data in their research from discussing or publishing their work without the approval of the Office of the Secretary of Defense." Finkleman added: "This was not the intent of PL 108-136."

So, while you and Mr. Lindsay put the blame on Congress, the former NORAD expert on this subject has laid the blame squarely on the US Air Force, which is refusing to develop clear policy rules.

However, the wording of PL 108-136 appears to have given the DoD too much leeway, for instance, it states: "Satellite tracking services from assets owned or controlled by the Department of Defense [may be released], but only if the Secretary determines, in the case of any such agreement, that providing such services to that entity is in the national security interests of the United States." Whereas normally the rule is that information is free and open UNLESS it affects national security, this seems to state that the information can only be released if it "is in the national security interest."

It is a little hard to figure out what is going on here. It is easy to blame "the stupid Congress." But apparently the original intent of the law was to make the information more freely available, not less.

So what happened? Did the law get hijacked? (And if it did, any guesses as to whether it was Congress or the Bush Administration that wanted greater restrictions? My money is on the administration.)

But that issue aside, the ball is clearly now in the administration's court, and the critics are clearly complaining about what the administration (via USAF) is refusing to do. So don't blame Congress, blame the DoD.

Posted by Timothy Okuda at February 23, 2005 11:16 AM

The intent of the legislation is probably to make sure that terrorists can't figure out when our spy-sats coem overhead. The orbital parameters of recon-sats represent very valuable info for any terrorist group or rogue state who want to hide their activities from view.

Posted by Impossible Scissors at February 23, 2005 03:22 PM

According to the Rumsfeld report, those satellite orbital elements are published on amateur astronomy websites anyway.

And that was 5 years ago, presumably things have progressed since then.

Posted by Kevin Parkin at February 23, 2005 09:48 PM

Both pro and amateur sites usually obtained the orbital elements from NORAD. They still can if they register and log in to the Space Track site (

But according to the new rules, they cannot pass the info along to others. So even a public service site like Sat Passes ( cannot post times when the ISS will pass over US cities. Last I heard, the ISS is not classified as a spy-sat.

Celestrak ( is a site that has posted orbital elements for years. It says ( that unless minds are changed at the Air Force or NASA, they will have to cease this service.

There are dozens of programs that track satellites for amsat radio enthusiasts, astronomers, for people who just like to observe spacecraft passing overhead (e.g. to see Iridum flares - Most all of those programs have a menu item that you click on to download the latest elements for hundreds of spacecraft. The sites that supply the data for downloads will no longer be able to provide such updates.

One can blame the Air Force and NASA for badly interrupting the intent of Congress but from my reading of the legislation ( it seems clear that Congress wanted restrictions placed on the availablility of the orbital data to any "non-United States Government entity" and to allow only the Secretary of Defense to decide on exceptions.

The page at describes the situation in more detail. If you are affected by the loss of the TLE data, the form at the bottom of that page will allow you to submit your complaint to Congress and Air Force Space Command.

Posted by Clark Lindsey at February 23, 2005 11:38 PM

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