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Missing U.S. Spy Satellites Fuel Antarctica Suspicions

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WASHINGTON (AMP) — International observers say that three missing American spy satellites bolster Russian accusations that the United States is mounting a secret military expedition in Antarctica in violation of international law.

Russian scientists in March detected a "seismic event" in the vicinity of an alleged American military base in Antarctica just hours before a huge chunk of ice twice the size of Delaware broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf. (Seismic Map) The U.N. Security Council is trying to determine whether the U.S. is conducting nuclear tests in violation of the Antarctic Treaty — a charge the U.S. has denied.

Since the March 23 event, however, no known spy satellites have passed over the affected area. That suggests to some observers that one or more of the missing U.S. satellites may be watching.

"Three American spy satellites were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California last year and disappeared after only a few weeks in their initial orbits," said one American scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "In fact, they may have been moved into secret orbits over Antarctica so they can carry out their covert duties without being tracked."

Military strikes are usually mounted immediately before a spy satellite passes overhead, so the damage can be recorded before the enemy — or natural phenomena — can cover it up. The recent activity has raised new questions over whether the U.S. is merely tracking seismic events in Antarctica or causing them.

The U.S. Air Force acknowledged the disappearance of three spy satellites last year from their initial orbit, claiming they malfunctioned and were destroyed. But engineers closely associated with the American intelligence community remain skeptical.

"Dead U.S. spy satellites are usually left in orbit," said a systems engineer with Lockheed Martin Corp., which in 1998 saw one of its Titan 4A rockets self-destruct less than a minute after launch. The 20-story rocket was believed to be carrying a top-secret $1 billion spy satellite for the Air Force. "Furthermore, high-profile failures like this typically prompt protests from congressional leaders who monitor U.S. intelligence gathering. That has not happened."

Experts instead suggest the satellites were placed into orbits that would move them more slowly across the skies than other high-altitude spy cameras, giving them more time to photograph targets.

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