Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites - a 'UFO' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites - a 'UFO'

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Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites

NOSS is a group of satellites that travel as a group of three in orbit around the Earth and sighting of this trio has given rise to many UFO reports in the UK. On 25 October, 1999, the British Astronomical Association offered a brief description of NOSS:

A couple of summers ago, meteor observers certainly became familiar with the NOSS trio of satellites, which were in an equilateral pattern. Onboard sensors apparently allowed researchers to measure precise distances between these, and how they were affected by gravitational perturbations over time. The NOSS satellites were also comparatively faint - visual magnification +3 or thereabouts.

First Appearance in a Newspaper

On 1 September, 1996, the Toronto Star newspaper in Canada wrote an unusual account of the annual Perseid meteor shower. During the nights of the 8-10 August of that year a set of three 'unblinking' lights appeared in a triangular formation and proceeded to 'cruise across the star fields.' These lights had never been seen before and were described as being fainter than the constellation of Ursa Major.

What the Experts Say

Ted Molczan, a satellite orbit expert based in Toronto, had uncovered that the three lights were the project civilian observers call NOSS. He also revealed that there was not just one set of satellites travelling around the Earth but three. The US Navy gave these satellites the code name Parcae, after the three daughters of Zeus; they were a part of the US Navy's space borne electronic intelligence system (ELINT). NOSS was the name given to these satellites by non-military satellite specialists and stood for Naval Ocean Surveillance System. Until 1996, however, the US Government had denied all knowledge of these satellites ever existing.

Each group of satellites apparently flies at an altitude of 1100km in a formation approximately 100km across. The satellites are meant to track the position, speed, and direction of all military ships at sea. This is done by detecting communication, navigation and weapons control signals that are emitted almost continuously by naval ships. Three satellites can track ships more accurately than a single satellite by measuring the time difference of signals received. According to CNI News, three sets of satellites were launched in 1990, 1991 and 1996. Each satellite measures approximately three meters in length, larger than the earlier versions of this system.

This means that any ship belonging to any nationality can be identified and located anywhere in the world. It has some interesting implications with regards to the use of satellite technology. Initial enquiries by amateur satellite observers asked how these satellites could remain in a tight formation and also how they could manoeuvre in orbit. The satellites move with a leading satellite first and the remaining two following behind; they are not capable of remaining in a tight formation but will appear in a triangular formation as well as a formation of lights travelling in a straight line. One observer noted that.

The NOSS constellations consist of three visible satellites, each of which moves in a roughly geocentric orbit. The shape of the triangle formed cannot be maintained because the orbits must intersect one another when viewed from Earth's centre. Thus from time to time the satellites will even appear to be in a straight line from that point of view. All other times they form some sort of triangle, but its shape must vary continuously. I tried viewing them from above in simulation in Starry Night. It is possible to do so, but it is very difficult.
Messages on the Visual Satellite Observer's Home Page.

Federation of American Scientists

The Federation of American Scientists also offer an interesting description of Project White Cloud:

The White Cloud Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) performed wide area ocean surveillance, primarily for the Navy's White Cloud which is used to determine the location of radio and radar transmissions using triangulation. The identity of naval units can be deduced by analysis of the operating frequencies and transmission patterns of the emitters.
Each NOSS launch placed a cluster of one primary satellite and three smaller sub-satellites (that trail along at distances of several hundred kilometers) into low polar orbit. This satellite array can determine the location of radio and radars transmitters, using triangulation, and the identity of naval units, by analysis of the operating frequencies and transmission patterns.
NOSS used the ELINT technique called 'time difference of arrival' or TDOA, rather than true interferometry. Conceptually, TDOA and interferometry are very similar, though distinct, techniques. They may also use the frequency-domain version of TDOA, FDOA, which exploits doppler shifts somewhat in the way the COSPAS/SARSATs do.
Federation of American Scientists.

The initial phase of Operation White Cloud was reported to be in operation from 1976 right through to 1987 when nine satellites were sent into orbit. This phase used satellites that depended upon Atlas F rockets to project them into orbit. It is not explained how these satellites remained in formation flight. However, a suggestion was made that extremely long wires held them together, but this means utilising wires that are several hundred kilometres in length!

From 1983 to 1987 a total of five groups of modernised SSU-1A satellites with upgraded stabilisation and data transmission systems were launched to replace failed satellites. By 1990, these satellites were launched using only three satellite vehicles. A number of infrared sensors were incorporated into these, and these had been manufactured by a company called Martin Marietta. By 1996 these satellites were using stronger and more reliable Titan 4#17 rockets. NOSS satellites are really known collectively as Space-Based Wide Area Surveillance System - a joint US Navy and Air Force program.

Major A Andronov

A Russian military advisor called Major A Andronov produced a paper entitled 'The US Navy's White Cloud Spaceborne ELINT System'. In this paper, Andronov explains why three satellites are used. The first has a wide observation swath, but by itself cannot determine the co-ordinates of radio emitters. The second satellite, with the first, gets a fix on the ship-borne emitters, the position of the ship is obtained, but with some ambiguity. The third body gets the fix of the emitters' signals, precisely determines their co-ordinates and then transmits the information to Navy's ships for weapons employment.

It is therefore possible to take out an enemy surface craft long before it appears on Radar. The targeted information is not only relayed to US Navy ships but also to land stations such as Blossom Point in Maryland, Winter Harbor in Maine, Edzell in Scotland, and smaller stations in the Pacific such as Guam and Adak. These were receiver stations before they were closed down.

Major Andronov stated that a satellite group is able to receive signals from a zone with a radius of about 3500km on the surface of the Earth, and under clear conditions can monitor the same object 108 minutes later. A system of four satellite groups enables any region at a latitude of 40 to 60 degrees to be monitored more than 30 times a day. This spaced based ELINT system is one of the basic means for over-the-horizon targeting for warships equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Today, these information receiver systems are employed by nuclear submarines1.

Early Sightings of NOSS

Sightings of such satellites were made, but were often reported as UFO sightings. According to research, NOSS was first launched in 1976. Was it possible that formation satellites, such as NOSS, were launched, tried and tested at such an early date? The first launch of ELINT Naval reconnaissance satellites code named Parcae took place at Vandenberg Launch Site on 14 December, 1971, and were launched using an LT Thor Agena D rocket.

There were different ELINT systems being used by the US Air Force and US Navy. Remember that NOSS is only a civilian term for the satellites, their name, type, and operational function will vary so there will be a number of dates for their initial launches. To further confuse interested parties, rocket launches designated as NOSS were a cover for other military satellites.

How the technology progressed

Through the 1980s and 90s the satellites were launched on powerful rockets such as the Atlas F, Atlas H and the Titan 4. These were designed to carry a payload of several satellites that would be individually deployed in Low Earth Orbit (using Altitude Control Electronics or ACE); this would not only be cheaper but also a more effective way of deploying satellites. However, there do appear to be a number of discrepancies, normally the rocket being used as a launcher would determine the type of satellite being sent up2.

If we look at the weight being carried by the launchers today we know that they can carry a payload of 8 tonnes in orbit, but the SB-Wass (NOSS) satellites weigh a total of 1.5 tonnes. What is not known is what other type of equipment is contained within the rocket payload. The extra mass appears to be consistent with the presence of advanced scanning infra-red sensor on the sub-satellites. Another example of existing misinformation involves the Titan 2 and Titan 4 booster rockets that were used in 1988, 1989 and 1992, which had a payload similar to NOSS but were in fact, as stated previously, singular spacecraft. These were deployed at a higher orbit around the Earth to function for Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) instead of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT).

Into the Future

For the Twenty First century satellites will be of a smaller construction, produced economically and will encompass tasks such as space based radar that the present Discoverer II program (joint US Air Force, DARPA and NRO technology) is tasked to do will cost an estimated $60 million.

Discoverer II's goal will be to launch two research and development satellites which will be capable of detecting and tracking targets on the Earth's surface! (Did you know that the NAVSPASUR surveillance system - surveillance of space - uses a doppler shift to detect objects as small as 10cm in diameter at orbital heights of up to 15,000 nautical miles and keep track of them accurately?)

They will produce high-resolution and imagery and collect high-resolution, digital terrain mapping data. It will be able to do this day or night and in all weather. But why the development of multiple formation satellite systems?

Since the end of the Cold War the United States has had to refocus its military planning and strategy. Second and Third World countries have quickly increased their technological development. The conflict in the Gulf War had demonstrated the superior reconnaissance ability of surveillance satellites and the US military has depended upon it. The US Air Force believed that space based programs will make ground based and air based radars redundant. To do this there has to be found a cheaper way of producing a new security. In the Draft Roles and Missions Report of the Joints Chief of Staff it notes that

The newest national space satellite system will consolidate the missions, facilities and infrastructure of two existing satellites. This will facilitate the closure of six ground stations and consolidate operations at one site, eliminating significant facility expenses.

Earth-based Attacks on Satellites

An important threat is the vulnerability of Low Earth Orbit satellites to anti-satellite attack (or ATAS)3. Satellites can be seen during clear nights but also on rare occasions affordable telescopes can detect faint objects in the daytime sky! (Accompanied by rare atmospheric effects, eg mirages).

It is also relatively easy to track satellites; amateur astronomers have demonstrated this already4. Second and Third World countries hoping to develop techniques of countering satellite surveillance only have to find a means of being able to identify, track and either mask ground based targets (such as mobile missile launchers) or disable the satellite itself.

It is a misconception that satellites can operate today in a totally covert manner. The technology needed to track and counter/disable is available and inexpensive. There is easy access to a worldwide network of amateur satellite observers. Complete with a skymap and a PC, anyone can plot and predict the movement of satellites. To detect and track means that the hardware has to be available, for a technology that is being constantly produced it is easily available if a nation can afford the cost. Most Second and Third World nations can afford it, eg India.

An example of this is a Lacrosse I surveillance satellite over Tehran being targeted for the 16 March, 1992, and again on the 22 March, 1992. With the knowledge of the satellite's trajectory, elevation, and height it would have been possible for Iran to fire a missile to knock out the satellite. Such anti-satellite measures are a growing security threat to the US and there is a need for projects to involve formations of satellites so as to prevent any attack on the satellites from rendering their work useless. Another added problem here is that there is a need for a rapid satellite replacement, so that surveillance and intelligence gathering can continue, the US has none employed.

A solution for some UFO sightings?

The interest in the field of UFOs entails the identification of satellites as the origin of many UFO sightings. It is known that from the equipment on board surveillance satellites, and from their appearance, they will emit a bright white colour with a blue tinge, and may be accompanied with smaller lights about their body, the light may also appear to flicker possibly due to the reflector radar antenna as they turn in orbit. The formation of lights will also vary from being triangular to a straight line to even appear out of nowhere, intercept one another and then disappear out of view. This description is not at all definitive but reflects what satellite observers have reported seeing.

Also certain suspect NASA film footage, such as STS-80 and STS-48, has to be questioned as these purport to show intelligently controlled objects that orbit the Earth. These have been interpreted by some to represent footage of visiting extra-terrestrial craft. However, a more plausible explanation seems to involve a classified military project to test the possibility of destroying satellites using ground based weapons. It makes sense that footage of unusual and intelligently controlled craft in space could act as a genuine cover for important satellite security operations by encouraging observers to believe that what they are seeing is indeed alien craft.

The h2g2 Tour of the Solar System

Take the h2g2 Shuttle for your whistle-stop tour of the Solar System.

1Reference: 2Reference: Mark Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica3Allen Thomson Space Policy 11 (1) February 1995, pp.19-30. 'Satellite Vulnerability: a post-Cold War issue?'4Heavens-Above website.

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