Skip to comments.Defense Source: Satellite Shoot-Down Doesn't Pass The Smell Test
Posted on 04/22/2008 6:50:19 PM PDT by lasereye
In the movie "Armageddon," Bruce Willis and company jury-rig a nuclear bomb in spectacular seat-of-their pants fashion to break up a colossal asteroid before it hits the Earth and kills everything but the cockroaches. In real life, the United States military pulled off a slightly less ambitious mission -- shooting down a dying spy satellite late Wednesday -- but for similar stakes, the elimination of a threat to human life posed by 1,000 lbs. of deadly rocket fuel on board the crippled bird.
Or so the official story line goes.
A U.S. Navy Aegis cruiser, the Lake Erie, launched an anti-missile interceptor from its position in the Pacific at a non-responsive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite just before 10:30pm ET Wednesday, successfully striking the failed orbiter as it traveled at more than 17,000 miles per hour, the Pentagon said in an official announcement. The roughly 5,000-lb. satellite, identified as USA-193 and built by Lockheed-Martin, "went dead" to communications and control shortly after its Dec. 14, 2006 launch. That meant NRO engineers were unable to have any degree of control over the timing or location of its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere or to push it up into a higher orbit to prevent any re-entry, as is normally done with sensitive spy satellites, experts said.
According to the Pentagon, the decaying orbit of USA-193 would have brought it back to Earth around March 1, give or take a few days. Some 2,800 lbs. of the orbiter, thought to be part of the highly classified Future Imagery Architecture space surveillance program, had been expected to survive the scorching trip through Earth's upper atmosphere. The line from Pentagon, NSA and NASA officials was that some 1,000 lbs. of deadly hydrazine fuel might also survive and pose a considerable risk to human life if it landed in a populated area.
"The objective was to rupture the fuel tank to dissipate the approximately 1,000 pounds (453 kg) of hydrazine, a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on earth, before it entered into earth's atmosphere. Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours," the Pentagon's Wednesday announcement stated.
But a defense source told ChannelWeb that the Pentagon's stated objective in bringing down the NRO satellite was "a pack of lies." The source, a defense department consultant specializing in satellite design, said the fuel tanks on spy satellites like USA-193 are built much less robustly than those on a re-entry vehicle like the space shuttle, meaning re-entry into the Earth's high atmosphere alone would have destroyed the USA-193's tank and dispersed the hydrazine long before it hit the ground.
"The way they're describing that tank is wrong. On a satellite like this one, as opposed to on the shuttle, they do everything they can to shave weight on the tank. And you're talking about frozen hydrazine. As soon as you start to warm that fuel up, it's going to blow that thing off like a bread wrapper. The so-called tank is diaphanous, it's not even a tank. As soon as it starts to hit the atmosphere, it starts to drag, it heats up and it'll blow," the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
Other satellite experts who spoke with Wired's Danger Room expressed similar skepticism about the Pentagon's rationale for shooting down USA-193. "[T]the hydrazine rationale just doesn't hold up, literally not within orders of magnitude," one military satellite observer told Wired.
The defense department consultant told ChannelWeb that some of the satellite's hypergolic fuel could survive re-entry, as actually occurred when the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed on Feb. 1, 2003, but only trace amounts.
"At about 70,000 feet almost all of it's going to vaporize. It's not going to be an environmental hazard. Now there's a little bit of hydrazine in the fuel tank's piping, the elbows and stuff. The little valves might make it through the atmosphere and they would have trace amounts of hydrazine," he said.
Despite the growing murmur of skepticism from experts, insiders and amateur satellite trackers, James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinks the official explanation for the shoot-down makes more sense than alternative theories being forwarded.
"Hydrazine is highly dangerous stuff. It's unstable, corrosive and explodes easily. That means that the fuel tanks for hydrazine are made extra tough. Unfortunately, the strength that lets the fuel tank carry hydrazine safely into space also means that the tank is tough enough to survive catastrophic re-entry," Lewis wrote Wednesday, ahead of the successful military operation.
"The hydrazine explanation seems far-fetched, but the alternative explanations make even less sense. The U.S. doesn't need to do this to impress the Chinese," he wrote, referring to one theory as to the motivation for Wednesday's operation.
The source who spoke with ChannelWeb offered a different theory. He said he believes the government wanted to reduce the risk that sensitive equipment on board the spy satellite could be recovered by anybody. While a great deal of the falling orbiter would be destroyed upon re-entry, he said, had it chanced to fall on land the debris spread would have been fairly contained and surviving parts or bits of parts could have been salvaged.
"[By striking the satellite with a missile] you're going to create a debris orbit, a cloud of junk that nobody knows where it's going to hit. It could bump those objects into higher orbit, or scatter everything so that stuff could be coming down for years, all over the Earth, instead of over a 20-mile radius," he said.
UPDATE: Here's the video. Regardless of why they did it, you've got to admit this missile strike is pretty cool.
UPDATE II: The main source for this story has clarified a few points of interest. He noted that while re-boosting spy satellites to higher orbits is an option, it's not the "normal" procedure with such satellites, as wrongly stated in the story. The source also offered a more detailed explanation as to why fuel tanks on these satellites tend to blow upon re-entry:
"The tank has 'stringers', or longitudinal elements, on the inside that add stiffening and resist the G's at take off and during boost. But those take up a different kind of stress than that which makes the tank blow. It is all internal pressure, or hemispherical stress, that makes the tank blow," he said.
Let's get real here...
Let me check a date.
Doesn’t pass the smell test? That’s pretty silly. I don’t see why they couldn’t have had several reasons for shooting it down rather than just one, including all those mentioned here. Plus it was a chance to get in a little target practice and training and see how well the systems worked.
"Were you watching, Kim Joung Il?"
After reading it, I am so confused, I am not sure if man has ever flown or not.
and the point is,,,what is it now,,Bush lied,,satellites died?
You got to show the chicoms (who know to win a war against us,they have to knock out our satellites)that we can hit theirs,too
Pardon the pun, but these guys are real rocket scientists.
OF COURSE the rationale for shooting down the satellite is questionable. Everyone, up to and including single-celled organisms, knows that the ulterior motive was to put the Chinese and our other adversaries on notice.
You’re probably right. The article seems to assume an either/or situation.
Yep they could have put a dummy satellite up that was just for target practice for all I care. The main objective was to see if it could be done. Objective successful.
I thought "Star Wars" was to be a spaced based missile defense system?
Don’t be silly. Heavier-than-air flight is impossible.
In other news CNN believes the official story about a weapons depot exploding in the New Mexico desert were governmment lies, and will investigate the matter further to see if the “Manhattan Project uranium bomb” rumors have any truth to them.
Al Gore: “The earth is flat and pigs can’t fly.”
At least one pig has been flying since the 1960's.
Yep, on Lear Pigs and GulpScreams.
I kind of like the idea that a secret chip board might
just flutter out of the sky into my back yard.
Gives a certain kind of spice to mowing the lawn.
Obama would put an end to this capability, if elected.
Hydrazine was the “humanitarian” excuse for the shootdown. The purpose was to show that we could do it and that we could do it after advertising the shoot ahead of time to show that we were confident that we could do it with the first shot. That is telling interested other parties that we have an effective ABM capability. It might just introduce a bit of caution in certain other nations’ actions. Iran needs to know that even if Nutjob is willing to sacrifice himself and his people in order to destroy Israel it might well be that Iran gets laid waste and Israel is still a going concern.
I agree that the “threat” cover story was bogus—and smart. You don’t get many opportunities to violate the ABM treaty without seeming to violate it. It was a great test of our missile defense technology.
This looks like the same indignation that NYT trumpeted when it discovered that the Star Wars stuff that the USSR bankrupted itself trying to counter was mostly disinformation, or at least was a lot of years in the future and not next Wednesday. NYT cried and wailed that Reagan didn’t play fair.
Tempest meet teapot.
It was our satellite, it had reached the end of its functional life. If we want to blow it up real good, who cares?
If we had nefarious reasons for blowing it up, I’m sure we could have done so in secret.
A one-two achievement for the Bush Administration.
Now how about testing the new Massive Ordnance Penetrators on the additional 6,000 centrifuges Mahmoud Ahmadinijad is drooling over in the subterranean Baby Milk Factory at Natanz.
We left the ABM treaty as allowed by the terms of the treaty in 2002.
I think the reasons were:
1. To keep the interesting spy parts out of the wrong hands if they land relatively intact.
2. To test and publicly show our anti-satellite capability.
2a. and because blowing up stuff is pretty cool.
3. (maybe) to destroy the fuel tanks for safety of people on the ground.
A little warmup with the pads on
Wake up call for the chicoms.Nothing more.
I'm sure the MythBusters would like to get their hands on the technology.
This is modern America. You can have only one stated reason for doing something. More than one reason and you have too much complexity and people's brains shut down.
Nope. Read Reagan’s 1983 SDI message. He never mentioned “space,” “space-based weapons,” “laser,” or anything of the sort. He said we would use our scientific and engineering talent to find a way to defend against ICBMs. That was a pretty open door.
The hydrazine was just a cover story, the military wanted the satellite destroyed for fear that highly classified technology could have fallen into the wrong hands. The key thing is that a US warship at sea was able to take out the satellite and could do the same for key enemy satellites in time of war. That the test took place in the Pacific with the help of the Japanese was also deigned to impress the Chi-coms.