Lack of Intelligence
America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad
MISSION: The Pentagon relied on sophisticated weather satellites to track the dust storms in Iraq that might have slowed an American attack. A new weather satellite system will not be ready until December 2009--a 21-month delay.
MISSION: The military depends on communications satellites. Mistakes--a Milstar satellite was launched into the wrong orbit in 1999--are serious business. A new Pentagon program was supposed to include five satellites; now it will only have three, at a price tag of $4.7 billion. The first won't be launched until December 2006, two years behind schedule.
TYPE: Missile warning and tracking
MISSION: Satellites have warned of ballistic missile attacks for the past 30 years. Two systems being developed to replace the aging missile warning program are billions over budget and facing major technical hurdles.
MISSION: A constellation of 24 Navstar Global Positioning System satellites helps direct bombs to their targets and lets civilian travelers pinpoint their location. A new GPS satellite launched in March was rushed into operation to help support U.S. forces in Iraq.
MISSION: Satellites named Ikonos, QuickBird, and OrbView have allowed civilians to gain a spy's eye view of the world. The U.S. intelligence community wants industry to build new commercial imagery satellites to help make up for shortcomings in the government's secret satellite fleet.
MISSION: Civilian weather satellites provide hurricane warnings and climate forecasts. Two existing satellites will be replaced by a joint military-civilian program at the end of the decade.
MISSION: During the 1991 Gulf War, military satellites handled 85 percent of the traffic. In the recent war with Iraq, the U.S. military relied mostly on commercial satellite carriers.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
Between 200 and 1,250 miles above Earth
Time to orbit Earth: 90 to 120 minutes
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)
Between 6,000 and 12,000 miles above Earth
Time to orbit Earth: 6 hours
Geostationary Orbit (GEO)
By orbiting in synch with Earth's rotation, the satellite effectively parks in a fixed location 22,300 miles up
Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO)
200 miles at the perigee, 22,300 miles at the apogee
Time to orbit Earth: 12 hours
Between 450 to 800 miles above Earth
Time to orbit Earth: 100 minutes
Spy satellite images--like this shot of Baghdad--are beamed back to Earth for analysis.
[Dimension labels] 15 feet [diameter]; 50 feet [length]
Sources: Futron Corp., U.S. Defense Department, Lockheed Martin, Federation of American Scientists, DIGITALGLOBE
Graphic by Stephen Rountree, with Doug Stern and Scott Greenway--USN&WR