Space: Scary Americans

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February 26, 2008: Russia and China are urging the UN to outlaw the development or testing of systems that can destroy space satellites. This comes only a year after China tested a satellite destruction system. They used a KillSat (Killer Satellite) that destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite, about 850 kilometers up on January 11th, 2007. That's at the upper range of where most reconnaissance satellites hang out.

The impetus for this new enthusiasm over satellite destruction was 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 and, to the surprise of China and Russia, satellites in a low earth orbit (160-2,000 kilometers up) [VIDEO]. The U.S. cruiser used its Aegis radar to locate the satellite, some 220 kilometers above, then fired a single SM-3 missile [PHOTOS] to destroy the SUV sized satellite.

Throughout the Cold War, Russia and China always worried about new American military technology. A lot of these nasty surprises were not even American (like composite armor, which is a British development). But U.S. surprises like smart bombs, stealth aircraft and truly bullet proof body armor kept the fear alive. Now, there's this anti-missile system that doubles as a destroyer of low flying satellites. Lots of spy satellites have low orbits.

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 (or SM-3), has a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of over 200 kilometers. Previously, the max altitude of the SM-3 was give as 160 kilometers.

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 its course as it approaches 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). Since the satellite was 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. One variety is the KillSat, that can reach birds in higher orbits. While the solid fuel SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missiles) can only put a ton or so (usually less) into orbit, U.S. engineers have long been known for getting a lot of capability into small packages. 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. The implications is that maybe the navy should get more of the billions being spent on space operations. Back in the 1980s, the air force had developed a system (ASM-135) for knocking down low orbit satellites, using a missile launched from a high flying jet fighter. This was done in response to news that Russia was developing a similar system. The Russian system relied on killsats, and was never that effective. A successful test of ASM-135 was conducted in 1985, but the program was shut down three years later because the air force preferred to spend the money elsewhere. The navy developed their anti-satellite capability without making a lot of noise, which has caused quite a fuss at air force headquarters.

 


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