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Unusual Orbit Raises Questions About Mission of Secret Air Force Satellite

April 27, 1985|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — A secret military satellite launched by a space shuttle last January was placed in a highly unusual orbit not common to spy satellites, raising questions Friday about the craft's mission or whether it went into the wrong orbit.

The questions arose when the Air Force released a report describing the satellite's initial path. The Pentagon is required to describe the initial orbits of its satellites to the United Nations under international treaty.

Most U.S. spy satellites are launched into fairly low, circular orbits that cross the polar regions or into orbits 22,300 miles over the Equator, where the satellite matches the Earth's rotation and actually hangs over one region of the planet.

However, the satellite carried into space Jan. 24 on the shuttle Discovery was placed initially in an elliptical orbit that carries it at its high point to an altitude of 21,495 miles and at its low point to only 211 miles.

Moreover, the Air Force said the satellite was placed in an orbit with a low angle above the Equator, 28.4 degrees, meaning that it was not meant to circle the polar regions.

The Pentagon has refused to comment on the operation.

News organizations have reported that the satellite is designed to intercept radio, telephone and satellite transmissions as well as radio telemetry data from Soviet missile tests.

David Williamson Jr., a senior fellow in science and technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday that it could be used to intercept data from Earth and relay it to a communications satellite in another orbit, which would then send the information back to the ground.

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