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US Military Blocks Data On Incoming Meteors 172

Hugh Pickens writes "Nature reports that the US military has abruptly ended an informal arrangement that allowed scientists access to data on incoming meteors from classified surveillance satellites, dealing a blow to the astronomers and planetary scientists who used the information to track space rocks. 'These systems are extremely useful,' says astronomer Peter Brown, at the University of Western Ontario. 'I think the scientific community benefited enormously.' Meteor data came from the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite network consisting of infrared satellites in geosynchronous orbit to monitor the globe for missile launches or atmospheric nuclear blasts, forming the principal component of the United States' ballistic missile early-warning system. The satellites' effectiveness was demonstrated during Desert Storm, when DSP detected the launch of Iraqi Scud missiles and provided warning to civilian populations and coalition forces in Israel and Saudi Arabia. As a side benefit, the satellites could also precisely detect the time, position, altitude and brightness of meteors as they entered Earth's atmosphere, information the military didn't consider particularly useful, or classified. 'It was being dropped on the floor,' says former Air Force captain Brian Weeden. Although the reason for ending the arrangement remains unclear, Weeden notes that it coincides with the launch of a new generation of surveillance satellites and speculates that the Pentagon may not want details of the new satellites' capabilities to be made public, or it may simply lack the expensive software needed to handle classified and declassified data simultaneously. 'The decision may have been made that it was perhaps too difficult to disclose just these data.'"

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