Expensive new U.S. spy satellite not working: sources

By Andrea Shalal-Esa - Exclusive
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 4:40 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials are unable to communicate with an expensive experimental U.S. spy satellite launched last year by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a defense official and another source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday.

Efforts are continuing to reestablish communication with the classified satellite, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but "the prognosis is not great at this point," said the defense official, who asked not to be identified.

"They have not yet declared it a total loss. There are still some additional steps that can be taken to restore communication," the official added, noting some satellites had been recovered in similar situations in the past.

The official said the problems were substantial and involved multiple systems, adding that U.S. officials were working to reestablish contact with the satellite because of the importance of the new technology it was meant to test and demonstrate.

The other source said the satellite had been described to him as "a comprehensive failure."

There was no suggestion by either of the sources that the satellite had been purposely damaged as part of a terrorist attack. Another government official said he had no information about any attacks on U.S. satellites.

The National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and operates reconnaissance satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence communities, had no comment.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard- Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics, said the satellite in question could be a classified NRO satellite launched into space on December 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which did not appear to be part of any "existing pattern."

The NRO satellite identified only as L-21 was the first ever launched by the newly merged rocket launch units of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp..

The new joint venture announced the successful launch of the satellite, but neither the company nor the NRO gave any details about the satellite's mission.

McDowell said the satellite was mysterious to satellite watchers because it was in a low orbit of about 220 miles, or 350 kilometers, above the Earth and had not made any move to change its orbital position.

"This is definitely a setback for the NRO, which has had an aggressive technology development program over the past few years," McDowell said. "It adds to the problems that the NRO is having transitioning to its next generation of satellites."

The Pentagon has revamped nearly all its space programs in recent years due to cost overruns, technical issues and schedule delays, but space officials say they have made "significant progress" to get those programs back on track.

Several classified NRO programs, including the Future Imagery Architecture program run by Boeing, have required infusions of several billions of dollars.

Mishaps and satellite failures happen occasionally. In August 1998, an NRO satellite estimated to cost over $1 billion was destroyed when the Lockheed Titan 4A rocket launching it into space exploded some 20,000 feet above the Atlantic.

One industry official said temporary communications lapses occurred occasionally, but a lasting loss of communication with a satellite, as suggested in this case, was rare.

Officials at Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman Corp., which all produce national security satellites for the U.S. government, declined comment given the classified nature of the NRO satellite.

Orbital Sciences Corp., another smaller satellite manufacturer, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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