2008: Following the example of Russia and the United States, France plans to
use its Rafale fighter to launch small, low orbit, satellites. The ten ton
launcher would be hung from three of the Rafales hard points (one on the
fuselage and two on the wings), and be able to put a 300 pound satellite into
an 800 kilometers orbit.
The U.S. and
Russia pioneered this sort of thing three decades ago. Russia developed an ASAT
(Anti-Satellite Missile), in response to the United States program that
actually resulted in the destruction of a low flying (555 kilometers up)
satellite. Russia has since revised this system to launch low flying satellites
using Su-30s fighters or Tu-22m bombers.
The United States ASAT program used a
specially equipped F-15 to zoom to a high altitude, and 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.
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), is
putting together a satellite launching operation. The Russian ASAT used a
MiG-31 recon aircraft to test launch the missile. Such a system can 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.