French Say 'Non' to U.S. Disclosure of Secret Satellites

BROYE-LES-PESMES,France - A French space-surveillance radar has detected 20-30 satellites in lowEarth orbit that do not figure in the U.S. Defense Department?s publishedcatalogue, a discovery that French officials say they will use to pressure U.S.authorities to stop publishing the whereabouts of French reconnaissance andmilitary communications satellites.

After 16months of operations of their Graves radar system, which can locate satellitesin orbits up to 1,000 kilometers in altitude and even higher in certain cases,the French Defense Ministry says it has gathered just about enough informationto negotiate an agreement with the United States.

The U.S.Defense Department?s Space Surveillance Network is the world?s gold standardfor cataloguing satellites and debris in both low Earth orbit and the highergeostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers in altitude, where telecommunicationssatellites operate.

Data fromthe U.S. network of ground-based sensors is regularly published and usedworldwide by those tracking satellite and space-debris trajectories. Thepublished U.S. information excludes sensitive U.S. defense satellites, butregularly publishes data on the orbits of other nations? military hardware.

In a seriesof presentations here at the site of the French Graves radar facility, Frenchdefense officials said they are gathering data on classified satellites in lowEarth orbit as part of a future European space-surveillance program thatEuropean Space Agency governments will be asked to approve in 2008. Thisprogram, with a cost of some 300 million euros ($405 million), would featurehigher-performance radars to track space debris in low orbit and ingeostationary orbit.

This newspace surveillance program may or may not be approved by European governments.But the Graves radar, and a complementary system operated by the Germangovernment, together already are enough to pinpoint the location, size, orbitand transmissions frequencies of satellites that the United States would prefernot be broadcast worldwide, French officials said.

?We havediscussed the Graves results with our American colleagues and highlighted thediscrepancies between what we have found and what is published by the U.S.Space Surveillance Network,? said one French defense official responsible forthe Graves operation. ?They told us, ?If we have not published it in ourcatalogue, then it does not exist.? So I guess we have been tracking objectsthat do not exist. I can tell you that some of these non-existent objects havesolar arrays.?

Col. Yves Blin,deputy head of the space division at the French joint defense staff, saidFrance would wait until it had acquired, with the help of the German radar,further information about the 20 to 30 secret satellites in question beforebeginning serious negotiations with the United States on a common approach forpublishing satellite orbit information.

?Right nowwe do not have enough cards in our hand to begin negotiatons,? Blin said hereat the Graves radar transmitter site June 7. ?We need more time to be sure ofwhat we are seeing. At that point we can tell our American friends, ?We haveseen some things that you might wish to keep out of the public domain. We willagree to do this if you agree to stop publishing the location of our sensitivesatellites.?

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at