How America’s Spooks Seek to Spy on Distant Satellites

On August 30, 2017, a video appeared online showing footage of every satellite operator’s worst nightmare: an anomaly. It’s the word space types use when they mean a bad thing, especially one they perhaps don’t understand and may want to downplay.

In the video, an orb—a satellite known as Telkom-1—hovers in the center of the frame while stars streak across the screen in the background. It glows quietly as the seconds tick by. Then, seemingly without warning, the satellite spews a cloud of debris. It flares, and then a slower plume of pieces detaches and floats lazily away.

“When that point of light starts shedding things to the left, right, bottom, it’s clear it had an event,” says Gerard van Belle, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, using another favorite aerospace euphemism. “There’s a lot of questions.”

Hypothetically, there’s a way to answer those questions for future events and anomalies, although it’s too late for Telkom-1 (RIP). All you need is an instrument called an optical interferometer: a set of smaller telescopes that, when working together, can produce detailed portraits of the dim satellites in geosynchronous orbit, more than 20,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The telescopes act like one instrument, and could hypothetically make the fuzzy point of light in the Telkom-1 video look like a real satellite, rather than a sphere.

That’s a hard problem. Lots of satellites spin around in low Earth orbit, and Earth-bound instruments can keep a pretty good eye on them. But geosynchronous orbits can be more than 20 times farther away, making the stuff out there look both significantly smaller and significantly dimmer.

Force enough smaller ‘scopes to work together, the thinking goes, and you can take a detailed picture of a geosynchronous satellite—which is kind of like being able to read the “Sunkist” label on a New York orange from a spot in Arizona, or being able to make out someone’s face on the moon. You’d be able to separate a satellite’s solar-panel arms from its torso, for instance. Satellite owners could diagnose broken old satellites or figure out why brand-new ones didn’t deploy correctly.

Those capabilities interest space companies, sure. But they also interest the military and intelligence communities, who would perhaps like to keep eagle eyes on other countries’ orbital actions—especially now that the Pentagon is hot on the idea that space is a “contested domain.”

The spooks and spies are not wrong: We live in an age of anti-satellite tests, satellites that can stalk other satellites, directed energy weapons, cyber meddling. Meanwhile, people and societies are growing more dependent on a stable space infrastructure that simply works.

So far, though, no such interferometers are up and running. And the versions that do exist are all more expensive than IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, would like. That’s why in 2017 it launched a program called Amon-Hen. Amon-Hen aims to develop “innovative, low-cost” telescopes on the ground that can take those high-(ish)-def pictures of satellites in distant orbits.

If you’re a nerd, you may recall that Amon-Hen is the name of a special hill in J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe. On this peak, ancients built the Seat of Seeing. Sit in said Seat of Seeing—a chair imbued with special powers—and you can witness what’s going on far, far away.

IARPA declined to provide any comments on the program, and the companies that are part of it—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, and Applied Technology Associates, according to SpaceNews—either said no to interviews or didn’t respond to requests for comment. Still, you don’t need a Seat of Seeing to determine what IARPA wants, some of which is public information. The agency—the intelligence community’s version of Darpa—wants interferometers that cost less than $25 million, can collect data on a given satellite in an hour or less, and can convert all the snaps from an evening into Insta-ready pictures before the following night. IARPA estimates the R&D program will last around 33 months, at the end of which a team might get the opportunity to actually build a full system.

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