Breaking news: US to destroy failed spy satellite?

By Phil Plait | February 14, 2008 12:01 pm

NOTE: This is an unconfirmed report. But given that it’s from the AP, it’s worth noting. Stay tuned.

The Associated Press (via CNN) is reporting that the US may try to destroy a spy satellite that will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in March.

The satellite is damaged, and cannot maintain orbit. In low Earth orbit, the atmosphere is extremely thin, but over time even that can slow and degrade a satellite’s orbit. The spysat’s orbit is dropping, and that’s bad. When this happens, there is no control over where it might fall, and that means it could drop potentially hazardous debris over populated areas.

The chance of that is extremely small, but in an effort to minimize it, the AP reports that the US Navy will be used to launch a missile to blow up the spysat.

Now let’s be careful here. Unlike the way the AP article phrases it, you can’t "shoot down" a satellite; it’s not an airplane being held aloft by its wings. If you blow it up with a missile, the parts will continue to orbit the Earth (which is why the Chinese angered everyone in the space industry recently when they purposely blew up one of their satellites, sending debris into orbit that will potentially threaten other satellites for years). Imagine driving behind a truck with gravel flying off it and you’ll get this picture.

However, the advantage is that smaller pieces will burn up more readily when they finally de-orbit. So blowing it up is an option, if done very carefully. If this is done a few days before the satellite makes its final descent, for example, the debris won’t be in a place where it can harm other satellites; by that time the spysat will be very low over the Earth, and other satellites will be much higher and out of the way. However, in the last few days the orbit is changing so rapidly that I think acquiring the target with a missile may be difficult. But they cannot do it earlier without creating thousands of pieces of space junk.

We don’t have any real info at this time, but when I learn more I’ll post.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Rob Sparks.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff

Comments (49)

  1. Pat

    Hmm… my estranged dad was working on a way to use f-
    14′s as a first stage to orbit: not much difference in that and a satellite killer except you don’t expect the payload to stay in orbit…

  2. Mark Martin

    I expect that destroying the sat has little to do with safety concerns. I think it has more to do with assuring that no large components of the optical system make it all the way to the ground, and potentially into others’ hands.

  3. Kirk

    Very glad you posted about this, since I was curious when I saw it come over the wire. Went to lunch, and when I came back, this post was here!

    The news conference on this starts at 2:30 p.m. ET. I can post a link to the livestream that we’re running on our sites (Internet Broadcasting), but I don’t know if links are off limits in these responses. Let me know!

  4. Guysmiley

    Guessing they are planning on using an Aegis equipped cruiser or destroyer with an SM-3 missile.

  5. Kirk

    Looks like links are OK! Here’s our livestream:

    http://www.wmur.com/video/15302540/index.html

    Apologies if an ad plays in front of it, since this is coming from our national desk. It should just be a short one. Windows Media format, but I don’t have a problem getting it to play on my Mac at home. It looks like CNN is running it on-air now, and CNN is the source for this feed.

  6. Quiet_Desperation

    Please note from my post on the original thread:

    “3. Demolition Option: Bust it up into smaller chunks (preferably NOT explosively) that will burn up completely.”

    Thank you. :-)

  7. NASA TV is carrying the DoD briefing on the satellite attack – here I summarize what was just said (they are in Q&A now).

  8. Charles

    This is really reminiscent of the old William Hurt film “Until the End of the World.” In it, a subplot is the world is in a tizzy as an Indian nuclear satellite hovers overhead and is about to come down, but no one knows exactly when or where. The US shoots is down with a nuclear missile and all is well. Sort of. Good movie.

    I do wonder two things that will never be said by our government to the public: 1) is this a demonstration to our Chinese friends, who blasted their own satellite not long ago and 2) is it to prevent any meaningful pieces surviving re-entry and this possibly falling into the wrong hands?

  9. Demigrog

    With my CT hat on, I have to wonder if this is a sly way of showing our own anti-satellite capability in response to the Chinese test.

  10. I’m thinking this is just some weird way to show the finger to the Chinese and say… look.. this is how you do it.PROPER.

  11. There is now a DoD Press Release, which I discuss – with a few items from Q&A – here.

  12. Kirk

    Livestream is now over. Looks like the main reason given was to try to blow up the fuel tank, since that fuel sounds hazardous. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind destroying that imaging sensor, either. But it sounds like something that’s going to require a ton of planning.

  13. RayCeeYa

    I certainly hope this thing is solar powered or at least down wind of me when they blow it up. If this thing has a radio thermal power source it could scatter radioactive debris all over the planet. Granted that the level of radioactivity will be well below any toxic dose (or probably even a measurable dose) but things like that tend to freak people out so it doesn’t matter. I can already see the headlines,

    “Spy Satellite Equivalent to Dirty Bomb in Space”

    I’m still concerned that because it’s a spy satellite they aren’t going to tell us if it contains any radioactive material or not. You’d think that since they are blowing the thing up we’d have a right to know.

  14. Scott

    I’m curious to see what technology they use to destroy it. Lasers, missiles, or something else?

    You’d think it would have an auto-destruct. After all, it is a spy satellite.

  15. Gary F

    Instead of blowing it up and creating all kinds of space debris, would it be possible to use a missile to nudge it into a lower orbit, so that it will be more likely to fall somewhere harmless, like the Pacific Ocean? I read that they were planning on attempting to have the missile strike the satellite’s hydrazine fuel tank, but if they can hit it with that kind of accuracy it doesn’t seem like it would be much harder to push it down, rather than exploding it.

  16. Vitis01

    They will likely use a Raytheon RIM-161 with a Block 1B configuration.

    http://www.designation-systems.net/dusrm/m-161.html

  17. Andrew

    Won’t exploding missile casings create more space debris? MSNBC says they’re going to fire 3 missiles, and then might shoot more if they miss the first time. Missiles exploding in space = trivial?

  18. Vitis01

    The missiles don’t explode. They are “kinetic energy” devices which means its just a fancy chunk of metal that gets in the way of a REALLY fast moving object. Net impact speeds can be around 15,000 mph. So, exploding missiles, no, exploding satellite, yes. Which I guess could be just as bad.

  19. Guysmiley

    Gary/Andrew: The trouble is, the SM-3 doesn’t even have a warhead. The velocities involved with orbital interception mean that you don’t need one. You get a big boom just from the impact. So if they miss they just fall back to Earth (presumably in the ocean).

  20. Yoshi_3up

    As long as they don’t fire a nuke, it’s all fine.

    Anyways, how big is this satellite?

  21. Gary F: use a missile to nudge it into a lower orbit…. Maybe we could tie a pillow to the tip of the missile to insure that it’s a gentle nudge. Better yet, maybe a piece of that foamy stuff they use to make those Swedish mattresses.

  22. Mark Martin

    There’s a difference between being able to hit the target and doing a rendezvous with it. The first only means attaining enough altitude to intersect the path of the spy sat. The second means matching the target’s orbit, which means having the same orbital energy.

    The energy of a satellite’s orbit is the sum of its potential energy (due only to its height) and it’s kinetic energy (due to its tangential motion). A satellite-killing missile only needs to match the potential energy, i.e., attain the same altitude. For a target at only a hundred miles or so up, the kinetic energy is orders of magnitude greater than the potential. So the missile isn’t equipped to rendezvous, but only to collide.

    Plus, there’d be the issue of somehow being equipped to latch onto a dead, tumbling target and nulling the tumble. A mission to rendezvous with the spy sat would be a highly sophisticated project (and an expensive one), requiring a great deal of lead time.

  23. Gnat

    It is so nice to read the comments on this blog (seriously)! The conspiracy freaks are coming out of the woodwork on the news sites.

    I read the satellite is the size of a bus…is that acurate? I know satellites can seem really big, but isn’t that mostly because of the solar panels? And how much trouble will the space debris actually cause for shuttles?

  24. Guysmiley

    Gnat: Orbital debris impacts can and do happen. Check out this gallery (scroll down for impact images):

    Orbital Debris Impact Gallery

  25. Gnat

    Guysmiley: Thanks for the link! I saw a picture of the Hubble, and am amazed at the nicks and pings!

    So, taking down this satellite could potentially take out other satellites?

  26. Mark Martin

    Yeah, it can easily be the size of a bus. A spy satellite is basically a long-focal length telescope. It also needs to have a certain minimum diameter for its collecting mirror in order to support the image resolution needed for the job. So what it amounts to is something like the Hubble telescope, pointed downward.

    Spy sats also usually travel on polar orbits, whereas many others, such as the space shuttle or the ISS, are on orbits of much less inclination to the equator. This means that any of the debris which may intersect other orbits can have very large relative velocities. Even minuscule bits of paint, flaked off of other satellites, have been known to blow deep pits into the space shuttle windows.

  27. Calli Arcale

    “You’d think it would have an auto-destruct. After all, it is a spy satellite.”

    I believe it’s only destruct system is it’s own propulsion system — it can deorbit itself on a disposal trajectory, a la Progress. However, as this particular spacecraft is demonstrating all too well, that strategy has certain deficiencies.

  28. Sili

    Oh, you just know the conspiracy theorists are gonna have a field day with this one.

    Somewhere some kook is this instant blogging away furiously about how this very satelite carries photographic proof that ‘jews did 911′.

  29. Irishman

    Mark Martin said:
    > I expect that destroying the sat has little to do with safety concerns. I think it has more to do with assuring that no large components of the optical system make it all the way to the ground, and potentially into others’ hands.

    Even though the Press Release states otherwise. I suppose you can’t help but be suspicious and assume the gov wouldn’t tell the truth about this.

    Charles said:
    >1) is this a demonstration to our Chinese friends, who blasted their own satellite not long ago

    I suppose this might be an opportunity to test a technique that might have future strategic value.

    Gary F said:
    > Instead of blowing it up and creating all kinds of space debris, would it be possible to use a missile to nudge it into a lower orbit, so that it will be more likely to fall somewhere harmless, like the Pacific Ocean?

    Addressed. This is not a rendezvous, it is a kinetic energy strike (i.e. really fast impact).

    > I read that they were planning on attempting to have the missile strike the satellite’s hydrazine fuel tank, but if they can hit it with that kind of accuracy it doesn’t seem like it would be much harder to push it down, rather than exploding it.

    Accuracy is not the point. The accuracy required is to hit the satellite directly rather than miss or nick (glance). If the strike is a solid hit, the kinetic energy will ensure that the hydrazine tank is ruptured and the big pieces become little pieces.

  30. Guysmiley

    Gnat: Anything is possible, but it’s not too likely. For one, the satellite is already in a very low and decaying orbit. Chunks of it broken off by the Navy missiles would also be in a low, decaying orbit.

    Even if pieces get knocked “up”, that doesn’t change the orbit because of the way the physics of orbiting bodies works. To increase an orbit altitude you need to increase the rotational velocity, not the altitude.

    Of course, knocking a satellite around with missiles will make a mess, but the mess will de-orbit since it’s already so low. The reason they’re worried about this is they don’t want a half full hydrazine tank surviving re-entry. Hydrazine is nasty, nasty stuff.

  31. John

    “I certainly hope this thing is solar powered or at least down wind of me when they blow it up. If this thing has a radio thermal power source it could scatter radioactive debris all over the planet. ”

    Haven’t there already been several nuclear powered satellites that de-orbited?

  32. http://www.heavens-above.com is tracking the satellite. Check it out, and see if it’s doing a fly-by in your area!

  33. Cameron

    Wow…I was just watching the local news station, and to represent the satellite, they had a computer-generated image of Hubble…

  34. davidlpf

    Sili the CTers have a field day with almost everything.

  35. “However, in the last few days the orbit is changing so rapidly that I think acquiring the target with a missile may be difficult.”

    This has already been indirectly covered by other comments, but hitting a big (size and visual/radar signature) satellite like this one is likely to be little or no challenge for the SM-3. It’s designed to hit ballistic missiles which have techniques for evading missiles like this one. See here:
    http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/systems/sm3.htm

    Staging the cruiser to approximately the correct overhead path is needed (which I don’t think will change all that much as the satellite orbit decays), but any altitude under about 300km (according to globalsecurity article) should be reachable. I would think they would wait until it is quite a bit lower. The AEGIS radar should easily be able to track the satellite. Assuming they track and choose to launch, a miss would be a significant embarrassment for the SM-3 program.

    It’s also worth noting that most of the debris is likely to A: tumble and B: have a poorer ballistic coefficient relative to the intact satellite (especially with a lot of fuel on board). Both will (generally) cause a quicker reentry.

  36. Yoshi_3up

    Oh man, what if the AEGIS cruiser misses and hits Russia?

    Well, besides the CTists saying that it was the satellite was a cover-up to attack Russia…

    Seriously, I know about the AEGIS SM-3. as Chris already said it, with missiles like this one, it’s hard to miss.

    If they miss… It would be a “Ha-Ha” moment for the SM-3 program.

    Honestly? I think they’ll hit the satellite. Even if I still think that “Shooting it down with an Aegis missile” it’s quite overreacting. Methinks.

  37. Buzz Parsec

    There’s a pretty good article about this at spaceflightnow.com

    The issue seems to be that the hydrazine in the fuel tank is frozen, so when the tank (or at least the piping leading from the tank) ruptures during reentry, a lot of the hydrazine will remain in the tank long enough to reach the ground. The don’t specifically say in the article, but I think that if they manage to rupture the tank while it is still in orbit, most of the hydrazine will leak out in a few hours or a few days (while it is still in orbit) and will burn up during reentry. (I don’t know what happens to hydrazine when exposed to air at several thousand degrees C, but I would think it would either oxidize completely or dissociate into individual atoms and eventually recombine into relatively harmless (compared to hydrazine) substances like water, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, carbon dioxide, etc.) Hydrazine is chemically N2H4, which is made by combining a pair of ammonia molecules (NH3) and removing a pair of Hydrogen atoms (H2, molecular hydrogen.) The hydrazine used in rocket fuel is typically methylated (monomethyl or dimethyl hydrazine), but the article doesn’t say what form is in the satellite. This would add a bunch of carbon, oxygen, and more hydrogen to the mix.

    As for the mass of the satellite, it was launched with a Delta II rocket which is a relatively small rocket. The Boeing (manufacturer) says it can deliver a payload of between 5,960 to 13,440 lb to low earth orbit, but the satellite is in a (more-or-less) polar orbit, so it’s probably at the low end of that range.

    It’s been described as “the size of a bus”, but it’s probably closer to a minivan.

    I’m generally against the idea of “shooting down” satellites, but this seems to be about the best possible case for doing so. It still feels more like an SDI publicity stunt than a real threat though. If they manage to hit it, it still doesn’t mean they could take out hundreds or thousands of warheads equipped with decoys and actively evading the interceptors, but they would probably spin it that way. On the other hand, if they miss repeatedly, it will look really bad for “Star Wars.” Will we know for sure if they hit it or not? They might claim it worked and “saved us all from destruction, chaos, evolution, dogs and cats living together”, even if it misses. See the controversy about Patriot missiles in Gulf War I.

  38. Murff

    I believe in the first thread BA had on this topic I suggested they should shoot it down! I just figured we would use a missile off a fighter, since we (USAF) have an aircraft designed specifically for that purpose.

  39. Skepticscienceteacher

    Why don’t they just send a bunch of geriatrics up there and then just send Tommy Lee Jones to the moon on it ha ha.

    P.S. B.A,. love the blog long time reader first time poster. Keep up the good work!

  40. BaldApe

    Seems like they ought to build in a capability to do a fuel dump if a satellite using hydrazine conks out. Perhaps some kind of a controlled dismemberment too.

    OTOH, I have often laughed at the way everything in SF has some kind of self-destruct.

    This thread is a great example of how bloggers and informed comments add greatly to the scanty information in the ordinary news media. Somebody knows about the missile, somebody else knows about hydrazine, somebody thinks we are trying to drop a nuclear reactor in his back yard (how did that get in there?)…

  41. Allen Thomson

    General Cartwright gave a number of interesting, ah, numbers in his briefing Thursday afternoon, among them the size of the spherical hydrazine tank (40 inches or 1 meter), the amount of hydrazine (> 1,000 lb or ~500 kg, which is right considering hydrazine has a density close to 1) and the size of the hazard area on the ground (two football fields or two hectares). “Hazard” means everything from eye/nose/throat irritation up to death in the case of prolonged or concentrated exposure.

    Exercise for the reader: The satellite is in a 58.5 degree orbit: What fraction of the earth’s surface between 58.5 N and 58.5 S does two hectares represent?

  42. Allen Thomson writes:

    [[Exercise for the reader: The satellite is in a 58.5 degree orbit: What fraction of the earth’s surface between 58.5 N and 58.5 S does two hectares represent?]]

    Tiny. 2nd exercise: What area is covered if the thing is massively leaking hydrazine as it comes down over the past several kilometers of its impact orbit? What is the impact is in a public swimming pool, or a crowded beach? Not very likely, of course…

  43. SeanH

    Seems like they ought to build in a capability to do a fuel dump if a satellite using hydrazine conks out. Perhaps some kind of a controlled dismemberment too.
    Problem there is they’ve lost control of the satellite. If they could command it they’d just do a controlled deorbit, drop it in the drink and there wouldn’t be any worries.

  44. Wasn’t this the plot to Space Cowboys only it was a Russian satellite and it had a nuke on-board…

  45. alfred

    Isn’t it suprising that an out-of-control US satellite occurs very rarely and has never before been shot (to my knowledge). But now, just after China has demonstrated it’s ability to shoot satellites, there is a dire need to shoot a US satellite? I think it is clear that this is about demonstrating US abilities, not about saving people or anything else.

  46. Skeptic

    Of course, we won’t miss it. We can’t afford to. Can you imagine the Chinese offering to shoot it down for us? Bush would have to invite the Chinese President to the White House for dinner.

    “If we miss, nothing changes. If we shoot and barely touch it, the satellite is just barely in orbit” and would still burn up somewhat in the atmosphere, Griffin said.

  47. Shamus Shames

    I don’t really know much about this kind of stuff, but it was ALSO a full lunar eclipse this evening on the west coast…I smell a CONSPIRACY;-)

  48. Shamus Shames

    maybe this is a pre-cover-up for debrit sightings this evening or in the near-future…

  49. Gman

    hah this thingy worked i cant believe it!!!

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