TCS Daily


Space Jam

By Russell Seitz - December 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Not long after the Russians launched Sputnik, a gargantuan steel mushroom sprouted in the coal fields of West Virginia, well out of sight of Moscow's Washington embassy. Soon the acre-sized parabolic dish atop the tower began to pivot and scan the sky. Anyone who asked was told it represented a new found American commitment to radio astronomy -- the science of listening to the microwave howling of stars newborn and the murmuring of distant galactic cores. But Appalachian locals soon noticed that, like a yaller dawg or lovelorn polecat, the giant backwoods dish seemed obsessed with staring at the moon.

With reason. A semi-genius at the nascent National Security Agency had made the mental leap from using shiny balloons in orbit for bouncing microwave signals around the world to eavesdropping on those bouncing back Earthward after leaking into space from The Kremlin's secret information links. All that was needed was a giant ear big enough to collect the juicy traffic contained in the feeble signals returned by the far distant moon.

So into the black budget went vast largesse for astronomers, some few of whom patriotically agreed to keep the secret of what the giant dish was really fishing for.

But within a few years, plans for a still larger dish antenna were abandoned, and the original giant radiotelescope began to decay into a rusty wreck, its operation and maintenance defunded. Eventually it fell apart beneath the adhering weight of a Blue Ridge ice storm.

Why the change of heart?

The answer speaks to last week's act of electronic sabotage by Libya, which has been jamming satellite television and radio relay satellites carrying stations that speak truth to Qaddafi's erratic sense of power. Not content to blast jamming signals at satellites in geosynchronous orbit over his own territory, his minions have evidently set up a jamming station in or near America to prevent dissident radio broadcasts (whatever their funding sources) reaching Islamic ears in North Africa. That Libya can do so without a conspicuous ground station reflects the fact that laid the giant cold war eavesdropping dish low.

The original space antenna program was terminated when sober souls at the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that for a few rubles an hour, the Russki's could aim a modest dish antenna directly at the moon, belting out the Internationale or the Song of the Volga Boatmen to utterly drown out the leakage from the Kremlin's links. A well-aimed transmitter -- no more powerful than a ham radio -- could blow away the intelligence communities' hopes for the giant ear trumpets it had on the drawing board. End of program.

Unfortunately, the lesson learned seems to have been lost on the next generation, of both Britons and Americans, charged with making free speech happen.

After satellites jammed, David Henke and Wen Gibson wrote in Britain's Saturday, December 3 Guardian that"

"British and US diplomats have protested to the Libyan government after two international satellites were illegally jammed, knocking off air dozens of TV and radio stations serving Britain and Europe and disrupting American diplomatic, military and FBI communications. Among stations hit were digital broadcasts by Five, BBC World, CNN International, US sports channels, cable TV ... the US State department said it 'would take it into their own hands' unless the interference stopped...

"Last night the Foreign Office confirmed it had raised the issue in talks between the British embassy in Tripoli and the Libyan government...The jamming started on September 19 after the launch in London of a small British and Arab-owned commercial radio station broadcasting on human rights and freedom of speech issues to Libya...Ten minutes after the station -- initially known as Sout Libya -- went on air a transponder carrying the station was jammed for 50 minutes along with other stations. The jamming stopped when Sout Libya stopped broadcasting...The station relaunched as Sowt Alamel. As a precaution, the broadcasts were sent to the US first... making it impossible for anybody to jam it, except from America.

"Yet the moment it went on air, the jamming started again, knocking out the other stations without affecting Sowt Alamel. An anonymous e-mail sent to a company which helped the station said: 'We can tell you we know the reason for these problems, it is the presence of the so called 'ALAMAL' radio Audio channel on your satellite. This channel broadcasts terrorist propaganda, intended to spread terrorist ideas amongst the listeners mindes [sic]." The station has now voluntarily agreed to suspend its service. Its director, Jalal Elgiathi, said: 'Our radio station had commercial advertising and altogether we have lost £250,000.'"

Just as the threat of a cheap countermeasure derailed an important Cold War initiative, the War on Terror's information campaign has been silenced by a device that may be no more than the moral equivalent of a $99 microwave oven hooked to a well-aimed TV dish. It may not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has devastated the hopes and frustrated the curiosity of an audience of millions.

Much has been said about the importance of sharing technical information in the War on Terror, but as we strive to connect the dots, we must remember that without astute technology guidance, efforts to inform the world may fall to earth unheard.

There is no way of guaranteeing that true believers won't persist in do-it-yourself jamming of global electronic communications links, but will someone please send Qaddafi a postcard or a carrier pigeon reminding him that in order for him to collect his nation's diplomatic and commercial rewards for abandoning illicit traffic in nuclear technology, and desisting from hosting terrorist training camps, he must also pull the plug on those waging electronic warfare on the world at large. Just tell him it's a First Amendment thing.

Russell Seitz is a physicist living in Massachusetts.
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7 Comments

Just tell him it's a First Amendment thing.
I think the Author seems to forget that the USA constitution only apples to America. Also the USA is one of only a few places that have "So called freedom of speech" in their consitution. Most Countries have and continue to have laws that only allow free speech by convention only the UK and Australia are examples. Most Governments block or curtail information and the US is no exception despite your freedom of speech laws. So what is this piece about ? Is the Lybian Governement bad yes, who didn’t know that, was allowing complete freedom of speech part of the antinuke agreement, no.

Beware of Geeks bearing riffs
Libya is signatory to a plenum of international treaties and agreements , and communication satellite contracts , binding it to refrain from interference with transmissions from the orbital platforms whose use it shares.

For a prince or potentate to support or countenance jamming of those by his nationals constitutes a violation of not just international and civil law, but the charter of the United Nations, a text that despite perennial efforts by some to subvert its intent, bears reading in parallel with the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

Time to Upgrade
Sounds like its time to replace those antique birds with some modern technology.

State of the Art
Max, old bird, one of the 'antique 'satellites these buzzards jammed was launched this year!

State of the Art
Max, old bird, one of the 'antique 'satellites these buzzards jammed was launched this year!

Message received
I hadn't heard about this incident until now. Thanks for the coverage.

Antique Tech is Antique Tech
I have'nt looked at the vintage of the particular birds in question. It does not matter. The technology being used is antique. That is why it was jammable. Modern modulation techniques are available to provide virtualy unjammable communications. They have been around for a very long time. With the advent of digital signal prossesing, those techniques have even become quite commonplace in some domains.

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