Space: Ships That Sink Satellites


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.


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