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Sleuths try to unmask new spy satellites

A previous launch of an Atlas 2AS
A previous launch of an Atlas 2AS  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Amateur space detectives think they have identified the top-secret payload that roared into orbit on an Atlas rocket this weekend.

The U.S. military gave few details about the Saturday morning launch from California, other than saying an Atlas 2AS carried aloft something for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. spy satellite agency.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, which hosted its first space launch of the year, said the NRO payload was released into a transfer orbit as planned about an hour after launch.

Hobby spacecraft watchers, using launch window and flight path data, suspect that the Atlas carried a spy satellite cluster designed to fly from pole to pole and eavesdrop on ocean vessels.

Some spotted the rocket and its payload after launch, but poor visibility conditions prevented them from confirming what was onboard, according to SeeSat-L, an Internet mailing list for visual satellite observers.

Ted Molczan of Toronto, a veteran spacecraft observer, thinks the payload could be a trio of orbiters, comprising part of the Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS. Such sibling satellites launch together and separate in space.

The triplets fly in tight formations to help them zero in on the location of radio transmissions from water and possibly land. The new satellites might be replacing one of a number of older generation NOSS clusters, Molczan said.

NOSS formations might be responsible for strange triangles of lights, witnessed on occasion by night sky observers, according to UFO experts.

Some of the top-secret satellites reportedly go by the code-name "Parcae," a reference in Roman mythology to the three all-seeing daughters of Zeus who spin, measure and cut the thread of fate for all mortals.

• NOSS: Naval Ocean Surveillance System
• Vandenberg Air Force Base
• Lockheed Martin
• Visual Satellite Observer's Home Page
• SeeSat-L Home Page

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