Space: Oldest Radar Bird Finally Retired


April 11, 2011: Without any announcement, an American Lacrosse radar satellite was recently destroyed when ground controllers ordered it to leave orbit and plunge towards the earth (where it burned up during reentry.) This particular Lacrosse bird served for two decades, more than twice as long as it was expected to last.

There are now three Lacrosse satellite in orbit, the oldest of them launched in 1997, while the most recent went up in 2005. The first Lacrosse went up in 1988, and was brought down (deorbited/destroyed) in 1997. The Lacrosse birds fly a low orbit (about 700 kilometers up) to facilitate the use of their radar. Because of their large size and low orbit, they can often be seen, under the right light conditions, with the naked eye.

For decades, the U.S. has usually had four KH-11s and four Lacrosse radar satellites in orbit, plus several smaller, and more secret birds. Often, these satellites last longer than their design life of eight years (some have gone on for 10-15 years). Eventually they all wear out. The KH-11 and Lacrosse satellites weigh 14-16 tons.




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