Space: MiGs in Orbit

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September 8, 2007: Kazakhstan is paying $60 million to get ten of its MiG-31 aircraft fit to fly again. Some of these aircraft may end up being used for satellite launching duty, if only because Kazakhstan has little need for high performance interceptors like the MiG-31. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the newly created (from the wreckage) country of Kazakhstan found itself the owner of nearly fifty MiG-31 reconnaissance aircraft. This because of a deal whereby the new countries inherited any Soviet military equipment stationed on their territory. The fifty ton Mi-31s are updated versions of the 1970s era MiG-25s. Not very maneuverable, but very fast, and able to fly above 60,000 feet.

The satellite launching project grew out of the Russian ASAT (Anti-Satellite Missile) program (which was in response a United States program that actually resulted in the destruction of a satellite). The Russians now propose to use their ASAT system to launch low flying satellites.

The United States ASAT program used a specially equipped F-15 to zoom to a high altitude, and just the right location, to launch a 1.2 ton ASM-135A missile, which then homed in on the satellite and destroyed it. The missile had two stages, plus a homing warhead. Development began in 1977. The first, and only, live test took place in 1985, when a worn out communications satellite was destroyed by the missile. Shortly thereafter, Congress shut down the program, believing that ASAT violated treaties regarding the military use of space.

This did not discourage the Russians, who began working on their own ASAT after the U.S. program was cancelled. Progress on the Russian ASAT was kept secret, although it was known (or believed) to exist. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many previously secret Russian weapons projects were revealed, if only briefly, and often in little detail. One of them was the Russian ASAT. Now, the Kazcosmos company, in Kazakhstan, which developed the Russian ASAT (in cooperation with a Moscow based research institute), has put together a satellite launching operation. The Russian ASAT used a MiG-31 recon aircraft to launch the missile. Such a system could only launch small satellite (no more than a few hundred pounds.) But such microsats have become quite popular, due to cheaper and more effective miniature electronics. Many regular satellite launches now include one or more microsats as part of a multi satellite package. The MiG-31 can zoom to over 60,000 feet carrying satellite launching rockets weighing from half a ton to three tons (depending on the size of the satellite). This launch service is competing with conventional launchers, which cost you about $10,000 per pound of satellite put into orbit, and converted ICBMs, which can put small satellites up for about $4,000 a pound.

 


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