Space: Future Satellite Take-Downs

March 27, 2008: The February 22nd, 2008 destruction of a broken U.S. spy satellite by a U.S. warship, firing an anti-aircraft missile modified to intercept ballistic missiles, answered a lot of questions about how to do this sort of thing. While a U.S. cruiser used its Aegis radar to locate the satellite, some 220 kilometers above, before firing a single SM-3 missile to destroy the truck sized satellite, larger radars and telescopes were used to predict the orbit of the target. This wasn't easy, because the satellite was out of control, and moving erratically. The orbit had to be predicted at least to the point where the Aegis warship could position itself under that orbit. But that was a good thing, if this anti-satellite weapon was to be used again. In wartime, an enemy satellite might try to maneuver to avoid a shot from an Aegis equipped warship.

The February 22nd shot took six weeks to plan, mainly because there were so many unknowns. Now, many of those unknowns are knowns and another shoot-down could be carried out much more quickly. How quickly remains a secret.

There were other surprises as well. When the 20 pound missile warhead hit the satellite, there was an unexpected explosion, as the hydrazine fuel of the satellite ignited. The flames burned for over twenty seconds. The impact of the warhead (which is inert, just a chunk of metal), was more destructive than anticipated, breaking the satellite up into more, and smaller, pieces. That was good, as those tiny fragments are less likely to hurt anything it hits.

The navy is setting up procedures for possible future satellite take-downs, and will be running some drills to test these new procedures.

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