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Navy Will Attempt to Shoot Down Defunct Spy Satellite

Navy Will Attempt to Shoot Down Defunct Spy Satellite

Navy plans to fire a missile from U.S. Navy cruiser at a broken satellite before it hits Earth.

The Pentagon announced last Thursday that a Navy warship has been tasked with shooting down a failing United States spy satellite that is expected to hit Earth within weeks.

In a joint news conference, NASA administrator Michael Griffin and Gen. James Cartwright, the No. 2 officer at the Defense Department, told reporters that an SM-3 missile – originally designed to inbound ballistic missiles – will be fired from a Navy cruiser during the next month to obliterate the inbound spacecraft.

USS Shiloh Fires SM-3

USS Shiloh Fires SM-3

The idea is to break apart the satellite to rid it of toxic fuels which are stored in its tank.The USS Shiloh will be one of three warships that will use the system to target the defunct satellite. Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, did not say when the attempted interception would be conducted, but the satellite is expected to hit Earth somewhere in the Pacific Ocean during the first week of March.

Although Cartwright would not comment on the odds of success it is true that several successful anti-ballistic mile tests have been already conducted from the cruisers, most frequently from the USS Shiloh, but no test has the urgency or high profile as the impending satellite shoot-down.

The Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) can target an object as high as 310 miles when fired vertically. After the third stage of the rocket is spent, the kill vehicle finds the satellite with infrared sensors and then steers towards the target.

Cartwright noted that the missile’s designed mission is to shoot down ballistic missiles, not satellites. The software onboard the SM-3 has been modified to increase the chances of the missile’s sensors recognizing that the satellite is its target.

“What we’re talking about is a minor modification in software, from the Aegis system and the missile itself.”

However other officials remain skeptical saying the missile’s maximum range – a classified figure – is not great enough to hit a satellite operating in normal orbits.

“This is the first time we’ve used a tactical missile to engage a spacecraft,” Cartwright agrees but after extensive study and analysis, U.S. officials came to the conclusion that, “we’re better off taking the attempt than not,”

“This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings,” Jeffrey added.

Defunked Military Satellite

Defunked Military Satellite

The target spacecraft is reportedly a spy satellite that launched on a Delta II rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in December 2006, but failed within minutes after the launch

A fiery reentry to the atmosphere would leave tens of pounds of debris falling toward earth posing a small but real risk of landing in a populated area.

The craft’s fuel is also considered toxic. “[We want to] get rid of the hydrazine and have it land in the ocean,” Cartwright said. “That is the only thing that breaks it out and makes this different.”

The U.S are not concerned about the intelligence data stored onboard of the satellite since its antennae and sensors would be among the most fragile components and would likely not survive the heat of reentry.

If successful, it would be the first direct U.S. test against a satellite since 1985, when an F-15 climbed to 80,000 ft. to fire a three-stage missile at a defunct solar-monitoring platform in low-Earth orbit.

The operation is however causing some political friction in reminiscent of last year’s strike by the Chinese military against one of its defunct spy satellites. The impact of the Chinese test produced a halo of space debris that will last decades floating in orbit.

The U.S. Navy plans to use a lower orbit than the previous test by the Chinese, calculating that their strike should only leave debris which will be burned up during reentry. Griffin said the debris should be cleared out of Earth’s orbit within weeks.

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