“Air force launches massive, secret spy satellite”
A dramatic headline from CBS News for a story on yesterday’s launch of another Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, carrying one of the world’s largest ever spy satellites:
The payload is believed to be an electronic eavesdropping satellite with a huge collecting antenna. In a September address to the Air Force Association, NRO Director Bruce Carlson said the Delta 4 was carrying “the largest satellite in the world.”
“I believe the payload is the fifth in the series of what we call Mentor spacecraft, a.k.a. Advanced Orion,” Ted Molczan, a respected satellite tracker, told Spaceflight Now. “They are among the largest satellites ever deployed.”
Once on station, the satellite presumably will unfold a huge, lightweight antenna to tap into targeted military or civilian communications networks.
“The satellite likely consists of sensitive radio receivers and an antenna generally believed to span up to 328 feet to gather electronic intelligence for the National Security Agency,” Molczan told Spaceflight Now.
These satellites are top secret (the story notes that the usual commentary about the satellite’s progress into orbit was halted a few minutes after launch to hide details of its position and trajectory).
One of the few times their monitoring capabilities were ever on public display was during Colin Powell’s testimony before the United Nations in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Powell presented transcripts of intercepted cell phone calls between Iraqi military members. This capability is called Echelon, but again not much is really known about this. (The UK’s listening stations are a very critical part of it however.)
Image from Trevor Paglen, one of the few geographers actively researching spy satellites.