Photo by Pixabay: Shows a satellite in orbit.

Photo by Pixabay: Shows a satellite in orbit.

By Scott Hamilton
Have you ever lost something that you thought you would never see again and then had it turn up
years later? I have had it happen only once and it was a floppy disk that had the original copy of my
first college term paper. It was not something I was actually looking for at the time but I was truly
fascinated by finding it. Unfortunately, it was impossible to open the document as the software used
to create it was no longer available. There is a similar story this week about an experimental
satellite that was lost for over 25 years.
The S73-7 Infra-Red Calibration Balloon (IRCB) was dead immediately upon ejecting from one of
the Air Force’s largest Cold War era orbital spy camera systems. The KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance
satellite orbits 500 miles above the Earth and launched the IRCB in 1974 to assist ground-based
equipment in fine tuning the location of the KH-9. However it failed to completely inflate, making it
nearly impossible to find and in essence created just another piece of space junk. It was not long
after its launch that observers lost sight of the IRCB.
The IRCB was located again in the early 1990s and was very shortly lost again. On April 25, 2024,
after approximately another 25-years, Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron noticed an
unexpected object on their radar images. They have not yet released the data that led them to the
conclusion that this object was in fact the IRCB that was lost in 1974 and again in the late 1990s,
but they have released confirmation that it is, in fact, the same satellite.
This is fascinating to me on a couple of different levels; the first is that the technology behind the
Space Force’s Space Defense program actually works. There are several squadrons in the Space
Defense program whose primary job is to detect unknown objects in orbit. This is done through
complex analysis of past radar data, indicating the location of every known object in orbit. Granted,
some of the objects are of unknown origins at the start of the program, but the objective was to detect
and identify anything new. As of May 1, 2024, Space Force is tracking over 27,000 objects currently
in orbit, most of which are spent rocket boosters which do not transmit any type of identifying
information.
There are also several satellites, similar in nature to the IRCB, which do not transmit any
information but are used like giant mirrors to reflect radio signals back to Earth. This leaves us with
limited ways of figuring out what these unidentified objects may be. The first of these is by
comparing their location to the predicted orbital path of known objects in hopes of finding a match,
or if we are extremely lucky, being able to photograph the object from a neighboring satellite.
When I originally heard about Space Force, it sounded like it might be a fairly exciting job, but as
I read more about the above discovery I realized that it is really the job of looking at lots and lots of
radar data hoping to find something unusual. The job really is focused on detecting new satellites
that have been secretly launched by other nations and discovering their purpose. I often wondered if
the whole idea of looking for a new object amongst the thousands of objects in orbit was even
feasible. However, the discovery of this lost satellite has given me confidence that it is possible to
discover new satellites with the Space Force technology, even if the “new” satellite turned out to be a
calibration balloon from the 1970s.
Accounting for everything in orbit may be taken for granted, but it is vitally important as we
increase our dependence on satellite technologies that we keep a close eye, not only on how many we
place in orbit and where, but also on the junk that gets created during failures and collisions. The
future of communications and space travel depend heavily on correctly managing our orbital space.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions
and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at
https://www.techshepherd.org.

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