Investigators will examine whether a secretive spy satellite program designed to snoop on other satellites in geosynchronous orbit is being properly managed, the Pentagon's Inspector General announced on Wednesday.
The probe into Air Force Space Command's Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program will determine if the program meets "quality assurance standards."
"In addition, we will determine whether the program office is providing adequate oversight of the contractor," the Inspector General's office announced.
The four-satellite constellation, launched between 2010 and 2016, is a key part of Space Command's effort to track satellites from rival nations. The satellites are equipped with high-definition cameras to view satellites in orbit, allowing workers on the ground to determine their capabilities. It's specifically aimed at geosynchronous orbit, the most valuable real estate in space. Satellites in that orbit move at the same speed as the planet below, allowing them to constantly stay pointed at a specific area of the Earth.
The satellite program was made public in 2014 in a surprise announcement. Built by Orbital Sciences Corp., few specifics on the satellites, including their cost, have been revealed.
Camera-equipped spy satellites are part of a secretive world. The National Reconnaissance Office operates a fleet of satellites spying on Earth, but won't discuss them.
The Space Command birds are thought to be similar, but have cameras that point up instead of down. The satellites are also thought to be highly maneuverable, allowing Space Command to move them to inspect newcomers to orbit.
Space spying — called "space situational awareness" at Space Command headquarters on Peterson Air Force Base — is increasingly important as growing rivalries threaten to push wars on Earth into orbit. American ground troops rely on satellites for navigation, communications and intelligence.
Russia and China, among others, are trying to replicate those capabilities in space, while plotting ways to take out American satellites. An enemy satellite equipped to detonate in space, or carrying jamming gear or anti-satellite weaponry, would be a huge threat to American interests, prompting the spying.
Data from the spying program is sent to sites including Schriever Air Force Base, where airmen from the 50th Space Wing manage the spy satellites in orbit and troops at the National Space Defense Center evaluate intelligence to form plans to defend American satellites.
What triggered the Pentagon probe into the spy satellite program remains unclear. The announcement does specifically target Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which is in charge of buying satellites and overseeing their manufacture.
Space Command in 2016 announced its intention to add two more satellites to the spying program, but those spacecraft have yet to launch.