Asia Defense

Could Satellite Sensors Solve the Havana Syndrome Mystery?

Recent breakthroughs may prove forensically useful.

Could Satellite Sensors Solve the Havana Syndrome Mystery?
Credit: Scott Kelly

As many as 200 employees of the U.S. Department of State, CIA, FBI and Department of Defense are reported to have been victims of “anomalous health incidents” leading to a constellation of frequently debilitating neurological symptoms commonly referred to as Havana Syndrome, which have also been reported by several Canadian diplomats. Although the cause of these incidents is unknown, several scientists including members of a recent U.S. advisory committee have pointed to directed radio frequency (RF) energy as a possible, or likely, cause. However, no direct evidence has been uncovered.

I propose that recently launched satellite systems for detecting and geolocating radio frequency emissions from the earth’s surface be used to determine whether RF signatures consistent with potential Havana Syndrome attacks can be identified in the locations and at the precise times of purported incidents in Hanoi, Vienna, Berlin, Kyrgyzstan, Miami, Washington D.C., Northern Virginia, London, Taiwan, Australia, Poland, Tbilisi, Moscow, Guangzhou and Havana.

Of particular interest in Havana Syndrome are possible exposures to radio frequencies in the range of 0.4 to 3.0 GHz delivered in rapid pulses to the head; such exposures were reported by researchers in the former Soviet Union to produce disturbances of the central nervous system at energy levels far below those required for a thermal effect. Similar types of radio frequency exposure have been shown to elicit sound sensations resembling those reported in cases of Havana Syndrome.

Research in the 1960s by Allan H. Frey showed that a 1.3 GHz radio frequency transmission with peak power of 267 mW/cm2 could induce auditory sensations. Assuming a target area ten centimeters by ten centimeters (100 cm2), the implied peak power of a radiating source with a perfectly focused emission would be no less than 26.7 watts, and likely much more than this idealized figure, especially if the transmitter (e.g. a parabolic dish antenna) were located at a distance of many tens of meters or more from the target, for example in a van outside a victim’s residence, as has been suggested in some reporting on the incidents.

For comparison, 5.0 watts is the power rating for one of the two categories of low-power (Class B+) transceivers for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) employed on smaller marine vessels (which transmit at approximately 162 MHz). These 5.0 watt signals from vessels at sea are routinely detected and recorded by Low Earth Orbit satellite sensors for tracking purposes.

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At least three relatively new companies, HawkEye 360, Kleos Space and Unseenlabs, operate satellites that collect a wide range of RF signals, and have been in operation long enough to potentially have archived data relevant to some of the times and locations of the incidents. In 2020, for example, the CEO of HawkEye 360, John Serafini, was quoted in a technical journal as remarking, “Generally speaking if the signal is above a watt in power – between 150 MHz and 15 GHz – we can detect it and we can geolocate, process and analyze that signal.” Archived data should be searched especially for signals in the 0.4 to 3.0 GHz frequency range (and possibly as high as 10 GHz) that utilize pulse-repetition rates and pulse widths that have been identified in the scientific literature as having higher efficacy in producing neurological and cochlear effects. It should be noted that the new RF-detecting satellites, at altitudes of 500-600 kilometers, make frequent passes, having orbital cycles on the order of 100 minutes.

Anomalous signals of this sort would be readily distinguishable from myriad other signals, such as radar emissions and communications transmissions. Any resulting candidate signatures should be cross-referenced with geolocation data on movements of foreign intelligence and military personnel. In addition, real-time tasking of satellites should be utilized if there are known or suspected instances of ongoing attacks.

A factor working against the detection of a hypothesized radio frequency emission with a highly focused or collimated beam is that a narrow beam is less likely to be picked up by rapidly passing satellites hundreds of kilometers above, especially since it would probably be aimed horizontally toward a target rather than upward. However, even highly focused beams widen, or disperse, over long distances, and even when aiming approximately horizontally, a beam that just misses its target will continue into free space unless blocked by surrounding structures. Transmitted radiation can also reflect off buildings and other surfaces, possibly resulting in skyward projections. It is also possible that operators of the transmitters purportedly used for such attacks may make mistakes, and transmit in unintended directions. The device used to generate the RF output may itself emit detectable signals if not appropriately shielded. Notably, it would take only a single “hit” of the right signature to add significant credence to the directed RF energy hypothesis.

Detecting suspected RF beams using satellites may seem like a long shot. It is instructive to keep in mind that when the Automatic Identification System for marine vessel tracking was introduced in the 1990s, the signals were only intended for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship, with no expectation of using satellite detection. But experiments in the 2000s showed satellite sensing for AIS worked, and now it is routine and essential worldwide. Even more recent advances in satellite remote sensing technology may prove forensically useful in the urgent case of Havana Syndrome.

Victor Robert Lee reports on the Asia-Pacific region, frequently utilizing satellite imagery for analysis. He has no financial interests in the companies mentioned.