There are thought be thousands of satellites in working order in orbit around the Earth. If the count was to include all Earth satellites including broken parts and discarded pieces, there are thought to be 21,000 pieces of space junk greater than 10cm across up there. If we include fragments even smaller than this, the number jumps to approximately half a million pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth. It may not always be possible to keep a track on all of these satellites and pieces of junk, and some conspiracy stories rely on this fact like in the case of the alien Black Knight satellite mystery. However, could there be any real mystery satellites in orbit, the kind that are classified Top Secret by governments? What about the real mysterious objects in orbit around the Earth?
The first satellite launched into orbit was Sputnik 1 (meaning ‘Traveller’), launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union. This event triggered the start of the East versus West Space Race. Both spheres were in a competition to establish dominance in the new dimension of outer space. This first satellite in orbit could be detected all around the world. Despite the fact it was a very basic satellite, the successful launch, and ability to orbit the whole Earth, triggered a fear within the West particularly the United States, how could the USSR, a poor nation with different priorities and ideology beat the US? Some historians have even likened the shock of this event to the devastating blow at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Even though 4 months after Sputnik, the Americans launched the Explorer 1 satellite, by this stage the Soviets had already launched Sputnik 2. This second version carried Laika the dog and was 50 times heavier than Explorer.
In subsequent years, deep rooted suspicion escalated between the two super powers and the world was almost brought to the brink of nuclear disaster with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As well as the space race, both superpowers were also engaged in a nuclear arms race. Espionage was also common although very secretive and the ability to know what kind of ballistic weapons the other had as well as their location was critical in maintaining superiority. Having a satellite in orbit around the Earth added a new aspect and possibility to spying. The Cold War ended in the early 1990s, however reconnaissance satellites are still regularly launched. Some the strangest and most high-tech satellites are still thought to be orbiting the Earth, albeit cleverly disguised and difficult to detect.
The first of these satellites is known as the USA-53 or Misty satellite. This stealth satellite’s design means that it is incredibly difficult to detect or locate. This satellite is thought to have been developed to keep an eye on the Soviets and their concealment of weaponry. If this satellite is still really in place it remains classified information. Allegedly launched in 1990 (on board Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-36), was a payload which remains top secret but openly known is that the mission was dedicated to the Department of Defense. Aviation Week magazine announced the satellite on-board was an imaging reconnaissance satellite. Amateur astronomers tracked the Shuttle and its payload and measured the satellite’s magnitude at -1, which was quite bright compared to normal imaging satellites.
A week after launch, reports were released from the Soviets that six bits of debris had been detected suggesting an explosion had occurred. The Pentagon announced that any debris would decay after six weeks. The amateur astronomers and observers that were tracking this object only catalogued five out of the six pieces. Six months later an unidentified satellite was discovered in orbit on a similar trajectory to that of the classified payload was released, leading the satellite spotters to suspect it was the missing piece, nick-named Misty. However a couple of noticeable manoeuvres later, Misty disappeared again. Perhaps the ‘explosion’ was a decoy to put Misty into place unbeknownst to the Russians.
Two weeks after the launch of STS-36, a patent application was filed for a satellite suppression shield. The patent described the satellite having an inflatable conical shape covered in a radiation reflecting material. It also claims that the outer surface would be able to reflect radiation therefore remain undetectable from “any ground or air based sensor”. The purpose behind the invention as stated in the patent is to make it difficult for “hostile forces to damage or destroy” satellites. Whether this patent was filed to protect the nature of the Misty is unknown. Perhaps the American’s wanted protection not just in space but also in courts of law.
The Misty is not the only mystery in orbit, another potential covert satellite is known as Prowler. Space Shuttle Atlantis’ next mission, STS-38 was again dedicated to the Department of Defense and was finally launched in November 1990. This again was a supposed intelligence satellite, this time to be placed in geosynchronous orbit to observe events during the approaching Gulf War (1991). During the late 1990s and early 2000s, an unknown object appeared to be flashing and some of these sightings were visible with the naked eye to satellite hunters. In 2004, an NBC news report highlighted the USA’s spy satellite programme and named the Prowler satellite and outlined its mission. This satellite’s role was actually to manoeuvre within 30cm of other country’s satellites and either intercept signals or to monitor them.
Amateurs again have been trying to track this satellite to determine its orbit and discover whether it is another stealth satellite. An unknown object in geosynchronous orbit identified as GEO 2000-653A/90007 has been suggested as the most likely suspect for being the Prowler satellite. Ted Molczan, an amateur satellite observer published a report in 2011, building a case for this object to be recognised as the mystery spy satellite. He states that all other satellites that have been launched into that orbit have been identified. However just because it has been spotted doesn’t mean its existence is public knowledge and unfortunately its true nature is still classified information.
In 1999, a supposed second version of Misty was launched, with a third scheduled in 2009. In 2007, however it was announced in the press that the Misty satellite programme had been cancelled by the Director of National Intelligence. With avid followers tracking satellite movements and in an evolving digital world, messages or a tweet can be around the world in just seconds, and keeping things secret may not be as simple as they were in the 1990s. Although the National Reconnaissance Office released a statement in June 2012 announcing the successful launch of an unidentified payload. Could this be Misty the third?
Knowing the real identities of these spy satellites is unlikely and it is doubtful that the US government is going to be completely candid about all their spying devices. However there does seem to be enough substantiated sightings and evidence to suggest there are or perhaps were real mystery satellites orbiting the Earth. Patents filed along with amateur observer sightings suggest that satellites launched by the US may have been keeping track on the enemy from the frontier of space, yet at the same time were able remain invisible, camouflaged in the dark, vastness of space.
(Article by Martina Redpath, Education Support Officer)