February 15, 2008:
A U.S. spy satellite
is falling out of its orbit in an uncontrollable fashion, and is due to land on
earth, somewhere, during the first week of March. The U.S. Navy has offered to
blast the satellite apart, with some of its anti-satellite missiles. These are
launched from a warships equipped with the AEGIS anti-missile systems.
Normally, worn out spy satellites, use
the last of their fuel to "deorbit" to a particular location (like deep water
areas of the Atlantic or Pacific). These big (up to 15 tons) birds don't
completely burn up when they return to earth, and could do some serious damage
if they hit anything. But what worries U.S. intel officials the most is that,
whatever pieces do survive the plunge to earth, could reveal valuable secrets
of how the U.S. spy satellites series birds work, or because some of the fuel
carried in the satellite will contaminate the atmosphere, or because the U.S.
Navy wants to show off its Aegis anti-missiles system. Take your pick.
Usually, there 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). Repair and refurbishment missions are done via
the space shuttle. But eventually they all wear out. But the target for this
mission appears to be a different type of bird, because KH-11 and Lacrosse
satellites weigh 14-16 tons. The target for the navy missiles weighs 2.5 tons,
and is some kind of secret design, on a secret mission.
So far, the Aegis system has knocked
down 85 percent of the missiles fired towards it. To do this, the navy modified
its Standard anti-aircraft missile system to knock down ballistic missiles.
This system, the RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 [PHOTOS] (or SM-3), has
a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of 160 kilometers [VIDEO]. But in this
case, the satellite will be hit at an altitude of 240 kilometers. This is a
previously undisclosed capability of the Aegis anti-missile system.
The Standard 3 is based on the failed
anti-missile version of the Standard 2, and costs over three million dollars
each. The Standard 3 has four stages. The first two stages boost the
interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the
interceptor farther beyond the earth's atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing
it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth
stage is the 20 pound LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close
on the target and ram it. The Aegis system only operates from warships
(cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that
enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles).
Apparently the plan is to fire two or three missiles at the satellite, to
insure that one hits. Since the satellite will be destroyed at a low altitude,
the fragments will quickly fall into the atmosphere and burn up. A Chinese anti
satellite test last year was done 850 kilometers up, and nearly all those
fragments are still in orbit.
The U.S. Navy has also been working on
launching various types of satellites from its submarines. But the solid fuel
SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missiles) can only put a ton or so (usually less)
into orbit. Smaller satellites can be put in orbit quickly using SLBMs. While
the U.S. Air Force lays claim to all things space, the U.S. Navy is quick to
demonstrate that sailors are able to operate up there as well. And maybe the
navy should get more of the billions being spent on space operations.