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Tilting at Windmills

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February 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RUMORS AND REPORTS OF RUMORS....Why are we planning to shoot down an "out-of-control, school-bus-size U.S. spy satellite"? The official story is that it's carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel that could kill a bunch of people if doesn't burn up on reentry. But not everyone is buying the official story:

The announcement set off an immediate debate on defense blogs and among experts who questioned whether there is an ulterior motive. Some experts said the military is seizing an opportunity to test its controversial missile defense system against a satellite target.

But others noted that the Standard Missile-3 has successfully been tested against warhead targets, which are far smaller than the satellite.

"There has to be another reason behind this," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a liberal arms-control advocacy organization. "In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."

....[Gen. James] Cartwright said that the Aegis missile system aboard the cruiser would fire an SM-3 missile with a heat-seeking nose that destroys its target by hitting it, not blowing it up. The missile, known as Block III, was developed primarily for intermediate missile defense against warheads coming in at low altitude. The Navy has spent the past three weeks modifying missile software normally set for hitting much higher targets, he said.

Asked whether the plan is really an attempt to test the Aegis system as an anti-satellite system — which would be a very controversial step internationally — Cartwright said the amount of special modifications being done to the programs used to guide the system would "not be transferable to fleet use."

Yeah, sure. Personally, I think this is actually an ill-disguised attempt to locate the Lost castaways. And speaking of lame segues, Lost is pretty cool this season, isn't it? Tonight's episode was great.

Kevin Drum 2:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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It's a shot over the bow of China, over their missile shootdown last year.

Secondary shot over Russia's bow for buzzing our ships.

Warning to both that Bush and neocons believe even more in Star Wars than Ronnie.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 15, 2008 at 2:10 AM | PERMALINK

"In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."

Tell that to the Columbia astronauts.

Posted by: skeptic on February 15, 2008 at 2:19 AM | PERMALINK

Second that-- definitely a response to the Chineses "see, you're not the only ones who can shoot down sattelites"

Posted by: Castor Troy on February 15, 2008 at 2:43 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting that the BBC just ignored the official American justification and said that it was about making 100% sure that nobody else could find out what the technology inside might be. This is the first I had heard that the Pentagon had cooked up a security rationale!

Posted by: west of detroit on February 15, 2008 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

So, we caused an expensive, highly classified, tactical anti-terrorist asset to fail a year ago so we could fire a shot over the bow of China and Russia a year later.

An uncontrolled re-entry could risk exposure of US secrets, said defence(sp) and intelligence expert John Pike. 1/27/08-SKYNEWS

Posted by: turtledove on February 15, 2008 at 2:52 AM | PERMALINK

The "Chineses"?

Posted by: Kenji on February 15, 2008 at 3:11 AM | PERMALINK

Does anyone here remember the Soviet satellite that came down in 1978?

Or how about Skylab? Remember that?

The point of shooting down the spy satellite that's coming down now is to make sure that it comes down over ocean and no one and no thing gets hit. If it comes down over land then it's every lawyer for himself when the damage claims get filed.

Posted by: anon on February 15, 2008 at 3:11 AM | PERMALINK

Why are we planning to shoot down an "out-of-control, school-bus-size U.S. spy satellite"?

I think the key to understanding this lies in the conjunction of the Republican aversion to public school systems, and the fact that the satellite is "school bus sized". That, and Bush's inability to put together a coherent plan.

Posted by: bobb on February 15, 2008 at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting that the BBC just ignored the official American justification and said that it was about making 100% sure that nobody else could find out what the technology inside might be.

All a matter of perspective, I guess. For the last three days there has been a nonstop rant in my household. "Why did they even say anything?!? Just shoot the fucker down! Are these assholes trying to give away even more of our intel gathering secrets??? If it doesn't burn up on reenty, its a free-for-all race to the ocean floor!"

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 15, 2008 at 3:35 AM | PERMALINK

SG got it in one.

Posted by: luci on February 15, 2008 at 3:42 AM | PERMALINK

It's pretty goddamn bad when you can't trust a single word coming from the Administration, isn't it? If they said it was Friday, I'd check my calender.

Posted by: merlallen on February 15, 2008 at 4:01 AM | PERMALINK

Also,when chickengeorge starts a speech "Good Evening" I look out the window to see if it's really evening.

Posted by: merlallen on February 15, 2008 at 4:15 AM | PERMALINK

Bush and the neocons have long sought the militarization of outer space. These evil and exploitative people can’t leave the final frontier as a place for peaceful international cooperation and research. They must exploit it for corporate gain and to kill people, as that is in their nature. As Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”. George W. Bush and his ilk prove that every single day.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 15, 2008 at 7:00 AM | PERMALINK

I'm going to go off on a completely different tack here and opine that this decision to shoot down the errant satellite was generated by the US Navy and not by DoD, the White House, the Naval Observatory, or the Oval Office. The US Navy brass knows that the real budget wars are about to start and they want to make sure they get their more-than-fair-share cut. What better way than to prove that their anti-missile technology works way better than anything the US Air Force or US Army have been able to offer. That justifies continued R&D into anti-missile technology, new missiles, new weapons systems, and new ships. After all, only the US Navy has the ships which could move to a position to try to intercept this wayward satellite before it penetrates the atmosphere too much. Just think, they must break up the satellite before it's even as low in the atmosphere as Columbia or they risk allowing large pieces to land on earth identifiably, negating the security argument. This is a budget lunge by the Navy for sure. It's great theater too.

Posted by: PrahaPartizan on February 15, 2008 at 7:00 AM | PERMALINK

And if the target is missed, what happens to the missile? "I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth I know not where." "What goes up must come down."

What if Russia or China took steps to prevent this from happening? Is there some international law that only the nation that puts up a satellite has the right to destroy it?

Is this the start of pre-emptive space wars?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on February 15, 2008 at 7:06 AM | PERMALINK

Well, there's always this problem...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3750744.stm

Satellite smashes Chinese house

A Chinese satellite has smashed into a villager's house on its return to earth, the country's media reports.

The satellite destroyed the building in Sichuan province, but officials say no-one was hurt.

A local newspaper printed a picture of a kettle-shaped capsule which appeared to be about two metres long, lying amid broken bricks, beams and roof tiles.

The satellite was part of a space probe to carry out land surveys and other research, Xinhua news agency said.

"The satellite landed in our home. Maybe this means we'll have good luck this year," the tenant of the wrecked apartment was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Posted by: The Geografist on February 15, 2008 at 7:12 AM | PERMALINK

Lost?

Posted by: steveduncan on February 15, 2008 at 7:42 AM | PERMALINK

Hydrazine is combustible and has a boiling point just above water. Chances of a tank surviving the temperatures and pressures generated during reentry are zero. Besides, your local university chemistry department has much more hydrazine than this satellite (and it's not highly regulated).

I think they're just laughing at us.

They used the same explanation for being weird about Columbia's debris. I always figured they were trying to make sure some kid didn't kill himself picking up a ceramic nuclear reactor core that Columbia wasn't supposed to have.

Maybe this time their just trying to make sure the reactor core doesn't come down in one giant chunk of debris in Europe or China where it will most definitely be noticed and reported on. If a lonely reactor core falls in the forest and no one is around to hear did it really happen?

Posted by: B on February 15, 2008 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

It's a beta-test for our asteroid defense systems.

Posted by: Dave L on February 15, 2008 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

She was walking
All alone
Down the street
In the alley
Her name was Sally
I never touched her
She never saw it
When she was hit by - (space junk)
She was smashed by - (space junk)
She was killed by - (space junk)

In New York - Miami beach
Heavy metal fell - in Cuba
Angola - Saudi Arabia
On Christmas eve - said Norad
A Soviet sputnik - hit Africa
India - Venezuela
In Texas - Kansas
It's falling fast - Peru too
It keeps coming
It keeps coming
It keeps coming

And now I'm mad about - (space junk)
Now I'm mad about - (space junk)
Oooh walk and talk about - (space junk)
It smashed my baby's head - (space junk)
And now my Sally's dead - (space junk)

Posted by: e. nonee moose on February 15, 2008 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Wake me up when they shoot it down from another satellite.

Posted by: Alex on February 15, 2008 at 8:28 AM | PERMALINK

I heard yesterday - I think on NPR - that the satellite has camera equipment that is highly classified and they want to be sure no one gets it. That is what the British reported, too. I am puzzled why other news outlets are not saying this. It makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: BernieO on February 15, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Two probabilities: 1. A kick in the head to China and a chance for the Navy to live-test the touted ABM capabilities of AEGIS; 2. They figure it might land somewhere unfriendly to the US (i.e. almost anywhere these days).

The fuel tank argument is just crap. Those spherical fuel tanks tend to survive reentry intact. All but one or two of Columbia's tanks were found intact, and the ones they didn't find are probably still out there in the Texas boonies somewhere along with the right main landing gear leg, which also probably survived but wasn't found. So actually if they're worried about the hydrazine, they'd be better off letting the satellite reenter normally so they can, if necessary, find and safe the tank afterwards.

B mentioned a "reactor core," but this particular satellite is not nuclear powered.

Posted by: Susan on February 15, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

I'd agree that the Navy wants to show off its anti-missile technology-- but it's also true that hydrazine is bad stuff, and half a ton of hydrazine is a fucking lot of hydrazine.

Posted by: MattF on February 15, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

My wife is a fan of Lost so I get stuck watching it and if there ever was a television show that deserves a quick painless cancellation it's Lost. Maybe the problem with the satellite is that it's part of the Dharma Initiative? Maybe the satellite is what knocked the Oceanic flight out of the sky?

Posted by: Paul on February 15, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Lost sucks. Empirically.

Posted by: Feh on February 15, 2008 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

> I'm going to go off on a completely different tack
> here and opine that this decision to shoot down
> the errant satellite was generated by the US Navy
> and not by DoD, the White House, the Naval
> Observatory, or the Oval Office. The US Navy brass
> knows that the real budget wars are about to start
> and they want to make sure they get their
> more-than-fair-share cut. What better way than to
> prove that their anti-missile technology works way
> better than anything the US Air Force or US Army
> have been able to offer.

And why not? The fact is that the Navy's missile defense programs _do_ work better than the Air Force's and are far more cost effective. Might have something to do with Navy admirals knowing that they might personally be sailing into enemy waters under the protection of those systems rather than sitting in a nice log cabin in Alaska, but for whatever reasons the Navy is more cost effective than the AF (not that they don't have their own follies, but still) and if they get the chance to show that off to Congress it might do some good.

Were I a congressperson I would still want to see the debris generation analysis, but since Congress has given up on oversight that isn't gonna happen anyway.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on February 15, 2008 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

The headlines are misleading; it is not possible to "shoot down" a satellite; the ASAT/anti-missile warheads/penetrators don't have anything like the required kinetic energy. Anyway, note that they're saying that they're going to hit it "as the satellite reenters the atmosphere"; by that point, it's headed for the ground in short order, so this is hardly a demonstration of "shooting something down".

So they're trying to make the big thing break into a lot of little things as it reenters, thus making it much more likely that most of it will burn up before hitting the ground. This could be because of safety/publicity concerns (whether anyone has actually been hurt, there has been outcry when large chunks of space debris hit the land in the past), or security concerns. But all this talk of a space race or warning to China is silly; we successfully demonstrated ASAT capability more than 20 years ago, and that was real ASAT, not hitting something as it reenters. No, we don't have the missiles in service now, but no one seriously doubts we could reconstitute the capability if we wanted to.

Posted by: Bob on February 15, 2008 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe the guys who are in charge of the missile system or the spy satellites are just bored, and want something to do? The satellite is expendable once it's not working anymore, so shooting at it isn't losing anything.

Seriously, a lot of people pick up the idea from TV that if you're an American cop or military officer, you're somehow magically transformed into a really serious, professional person. They don't think the military or the police forces get any of the meat-heads, when the facts are actually otherwise. It takes a lot of propganda to reverse an impression like that.

I don't mean to suggest the answer is really that simple, or to cut off any speculation with my own-- I'm just suggesting maybe this is one thing it could be. It seems to me the answer to explain why cops, military men etc. do things they do is more often something like this than people realize, so I'm just throwing it out there for that awareness-purpose.

Posted by: Swan on February 15, 2008 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

In light of Bob's comment at 9:51-- maybe it's psywar against the American public and against the foreign public. If our spy satellite schizzes out and falls to the ground, it makes us look weak, doofy, and lame to people who don't know better. But if we are shooting it down, it makes us look like we are doing something and we are capable, instead of just sitting areound having out shit fall on us.

I know it sounds neurotic and silly, but you have to understand that this (psywar) is considered a high science and they have advisors making big paychecks off of this stuff- they probably have a bunch of pimply, high school jock consultants to tell them what they think of it: "What would you do were you in our position, Chad? You want China to feel like a bitch."

If you have stupid people who can't actually govern running important things, these are all the ideas they can come up with.

Posted by: Swan on February 15, 2008 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

>"...not eveything the government does some sort of evil conspiracy."

Under Bush II I find little evidence to support the above assertion.

>"The fact is that the Navy's missile defense programs _do_ work better..."

Hmmm... I'm old enough to remember the stellar success of the early US space program when the US Navy was running it. As I recall, they never even got a rocket off the launch pad. (In all fairness, they did create some spectacular news footage).

Posted by: Buford on February 15, 2008 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

"I know it sounds neurotic and silly, but you have to understand that this (psywar) is considered a high science and they have advisors making big paychecks off of this stuff-"

When I wrote this, I wasn't trying to say "You all out there may considered psywar not to be serious, but it actually is." What I meant to say was that even though a lot of so-called psywar stuff may be pretty silly, the guys who are paying for it may take it very seriously, so there may be a lot of actually pretty stupid things that are done with a psywar rationale, even though if most of us heard of people doing things like that for those kinds of reasons, we'd think they were foolish. It may not make sense to you, but to them, it seems to make a lot of sense- like a really insecure or jerky person has a totally different perception of everything that's going on around him and what everyone is doing at all times. That's why he acts so different (jerky) from everybody else.

Posted by: Swan on February 15, 2008 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK
I heard yesterday - I think on NPR - that the satellite has camera equipment that is highly classified and they want to be sure no one gets it.

Of course it does. Not just highly classified, but the actual latest and greatest available for putting on a launch vehicle in 2006. I'm sure there's a lead of a couple years, but nonetheless, it's almost certainly chock-full of exremely high-tech, extremely sensitive equipment(optics, microprocessors, signal equipment) that would have been the most sophisticated in orbit if it had successfully deployed after launch.

B mentioned a "reactor core," but this particular satellite is not nuclear powered.
Well, not that we, the public, know of. I suspect that the only people who know for sure would get in a LOT of trouble for confirming or denying the presence or absence of a nuclear power source on that or any other US spy satellite. Posted by: kenga on February 15, 2008 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

but this particular satellite is not nuclear powered

And you heard this from which source that has not yet lied to you? I also heard that, but one other reason I heard (not yet seen here) was that the satellite contains things it's not supposed to have -- nuclear power is one example, space weapons is another.

I am a bit mystified by the whole exercise. Blowing it to pieces creates more possible space junk, not less. Unless we can blow it into itty-bitty pieces, big stuff still hits the ground hard. Unless we can blow it into itty-bitty pieces, secrets (whether technical, or legal) survive. There's no particular reason to believe that an anti-warhead warhead will accomplish "itty-bitty pieces" -- the design goal of an anti-missile system is disabling the explosive, not dust. Dust is overkill.

Hmmm. Except, if we shoot an anti-missile system at it, any anti-satellite bits in the resulting debris, "came from the missile we shot at it". Still sounds a bit over the top to me, but it's a better fit than "minimizing space junk", which just doesn't work at all.

Posted by: dr2chase on February 15, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Anti-satellite defense PR is certainly part of the decision. Who knows what's on the thing, secret defensive weaponry or a radioactive power supply (containing last year's poster-boy isotope polonium) might also be reasons to get this away from cranky and restive democratic nations.

Posted by: john on February 15, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Lost was great last night. It's only the 2nd network series since Twin Peaks that we actually look forward to watching. (Seinfeld the obvious other one.)

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on February 15, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

"Once the rockets go up,
who cares where they come down?
That's not my department,"
says Werner von Braun.

Posted by: tom lehrer on February 15, 2008 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Goodness.
That reminds me of one of Lehrer's love ballads - and yesterday would have been THE perfect day to send my sweetie a link to a YouTube of "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

Posted by: kenga on February 15, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl at 3:35 AM has it right. I thought exactly the same thing -- great minds, and all that -- how stupid is it to announce something difficult we're going to try, especially if it's allegedly to impress the "chineses" that could easily fail and make us look inept? What kind of morons are running this show?

Oh, wait...

Posted by: thersites on February 15, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

It will be one less piece of space junk floating around up there.
I don't believe that this is true. It seems likely that some small percentage of the debris generated will get "lucky" and be kicked into a stable higher orbit by the 10kps impact, and that most will reenter and burn up with a few months, but low earth orbit may end up with more debris chunks large enough to take out anything they hit, not fewer.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on February 15, 2008 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

You know why they don't announce precise predictions of where satellite debris is going to fall? It's because of the potential liability. They could say it will land 30 miles off the coast of Miami, and if it lands *in* Miami they'd be blamed.

That said, they *can* make such precise predictions.

I assumed that they're blowing up this satellite because they've calculated its descent and have found that it will fall in a populated area. Nobody's ever been hurt by a falling satellite because the Earth is 70% water, and things usually land in the ocean. But if they calculated that it's going to drop directly on top of a large city or suburban region, then destroying it becomes a necessity.

Posted by: Remus Shepherd on February 15, 2008 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe this is the result of some kind of wager with Putin?

If you don't think dumb jackasses sometimes do dumb jackass things, for dumb jackass reasons, you're sometimes going to miss by 10 miles when you try to guess out what they're up to.

Posted by: Swan on February 15, 2008 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

What I want to know is, why hasn't Ah-nuld gotten involved here?

"WATCH OUT! DA SAT-UH-LIGHT IS FALLING! GET OUT! DERE'S NO TIME!"

Posted by: mmy on February 15, 2008 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

> Hmmm... I'm old enough to remember the stellar
> success of the early US space program when the US
> NNavy was running it. As I recall, they never even
> got a rocket off the launch pad. (In all
> fairness, they did create some spectacular news
> footage).

You know, organizations _can_ change in the interval from 1947 to 2008 ;-)

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on February 15, 2008 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

What goes up must come down.

Tell that to Voyager. Or google "escape velocity."

A couple thoughts. It would be totally cool if they could somehow delay this until the fourth of July and then nail the sucker over the US at night. I mean we should at least get something out of our billions, right?

Is it true that the satellite contains a carburator that can get 100 miles to the gallon?

Posted by: Tripp on February 15, 2008 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

"Why did they even say anything?!? Just shoot the fucker down! Are these assholes trying to give away even more of our intel gathering secrets??? If it doesn't burn up on reenty, its a free-for-all race to the ocean floor!"

My thoughts exactly. Which is why the most generous conclusion is that this is all purely a PR stunt. And China and Russia are the secondary targets -- this marketing campaign is aimed primarily at us. This kind of shit gets big-time press coverage, enough to pull the limelight off from the Dem primary. I expect a series of erection-inducing military stunts from now until Nov.

I gotta say that this worries me most of all:

The Navy has spent the past three weeks modifying missile software normally set for hitting much higher targets, he said.

It takes more than three weeks to input new parameters? Geezus Effing Xmas.

Posted by: Disputo on February 15, 2008 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

Btw, in case there are any fellow astro-geeks out there, the sat can be tracked at heavens-above.com.

Posted by: Disputo on February 15, 2008 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Remus,

But if they calculated that it's going to drop directly on top of a large city or suburban region, then destroying it becomes a necessity.

Unless the region is in, I dunno, North Korea or a blue state.

Seriously thought, you think they can predict this? Wouldn't it depend on the orientation of the satellite as it enters? It seems to me in a low earth orbits it would be moving pretty fast relative to the ground.

Posted by: Tripp on February 15, 2008 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

I can't stay awake through "Lost" this season.
There's all these different groups going back and
forth to various places on the island, and I just
don't care any more. Sure, there are new mysteries
and new questions - but heck, there are still
great big questions from season 1 episode 1
unanswered, so I'm not going to hold my breath
worrying about them. Why the polar bears ? What
makes the big train noise ? What's the smoke
monster ? Who cares ?

I enjoyed last season because Ben was just about
the most fascinatingly ambiguous character on TV -
brilliant, brave, unpredictable, ruthless, and
always pulling everyone's strings. But he's been
given nothing to do so far this season.

And Kate is just really annoying. She was quite
annoying from day one. But now she's just
unwatchable. Couldn't they have killed off
Jack and Kate instead of Charlie and Eko ?

Posted by: Richard Cownie on February 15, 2008 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

I hope they've got a self-destruct mode for the missile after it misses its target. I'd really hate to see it come down in China.

This is just another stupid stunt from an administration that's already set the record for stupid stunts. I know how to fix the sour mood in this country: impeach the clowns. Public optimism for the future would soar.

Posted by: cmac on February 15, 2008 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Disputo,

It takes more than three weeks to input new parameters? Geezus Effing Xmas.

Parameters? You wish.

I heard the software is so old you have to input the bits by toggling switches, it is written in 5 bit Baudot code, and the s's look like f's.

Posted by: Tripp on February 15, 2008 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Lost us the only show my wife and I schedule a night around -- and we have a DVR.

My only problem with Lost so far this season is that in an attempt to provide a fast-moving storyline, a lot of the characters' motivations are a little implausible. It's hard to believe the Losties, who as a group have huge mistrust of Locke, decide in reasonably large numbers to side with him when the group splits up, for example.

Also, hard to believe the Others would be sitting so patiently on their other island, incommunicado, with such a large number of their guys AWOL (Ben tagging along with Locke, all 10 of their raiding party on a permanent vacation, etc).

Still, Lost beats the endless primary coverage.

Posted by: Ben on February 15, 2008 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

As has been written above there are many possible reasons for Bush to be a screw-up.

He's been copying every president in his own screwy way. Maybe what he's doing now is proving Star Wars can work by scrapping all the work done on it and trying to replace it in 3 weeks by using/re-programming another system for low-level target practice.

Maybe he even sees himself as having a go at winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Who knows what deluded thoughts flit through that chicken coop of a mind.

Posted by: MarkH on February 15, 2008 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

The story I'm getting from inside sources (and on this story, I HAVE inside sources) is that it is indeed a veiled threat to China: "You're not the only one who can shoot down satellites." Moreover, it even allows us to do it in a sanctimonious way: China's ASAT test blew hundreds of thousands of little fast-moving bullet-sized bits of material all over near-Earth space at an altitude high enough that they'll stay up there for decades, and so by itself that test doubled the rapidly growing and very real menace of space debris -- which, in the not too distant future, may actually make it too dangerous to put any manned ships into space, and even difficult to keep robots working there for long! (I would have sworn that the human race could never pollute outer space, but by God we've managed to do it.)

OUR satellite, on the other hand, is already at such a low altitude and so close to reentry that the cloud of debris our "shoot-down" (or, more accurately, "blow-to-bits") will produce will all quickly re-enter and burn up -- thus allowing us to both genuinely be more Environmentally Responsible in our military muscle-flexing than China was, and to sanctimoniously pretend that we are actually being still more Reponsible by getting rid of that Horrid Tank of Deadly Hydrazine (whose own chances of producing any environmental hazard at all are virtually nonexistent). In short, I have trouble thinking that the Chinese didn't ask for this -- but the fact remains that our official story as to why we're doing it is a lie.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on February 15, 2008 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

Folks, I spent 20 years as a software engineer.

The absolutely scariest part of this story is that they are going to be making software modifications and the first real-world test of those changes will be trying to hit this satellite.

OMG!!!!!

Posted by: CB on February 15, 2008 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

> Seriously thought, you think they can predict
> this? Wouldn't it depend on the orientation of the
> satellite as it enters? It seems to me in a low
> earth orbits it would be moving pretty fast
> relative to the ground.

The problem here is that (per the public story anyway) the controllers have absolutely no communication with or control over the satellite. Which means it is probably tumbling chaotically and there is no way to predict its drag coefficient as moves into the upper atmosphere. Without knowing the drag, and without being able to re-orient the satellite to control the drag, there is no way to predict where along its orbit it will come down. A chaotic process can produce outputs that are predictable at the macro level ("will hit earth with +/- 100 miles of its orbital track") but not at the micro level ("where along the track?").

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on February 15, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

fat white guy: I realize it is stretch for some of you lefties but not eveything the government does some sort of evil conspiracy.

screw you...

Posted by: Vince Foster on February 15, 2008 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

Disputo >"...It takes more than three weeks to input new parameters?..."

Think testing those changes in many, many simulations of test cases.

And they are doing it for all of the above reasons given the number of people in the decision cluster.

I hope they broadcast the attempt.

"...playin with matches in a pool of gasoline..." - Swamp Mama Johnson

Posted by: daCascadian on February 15, 2008 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Its likely a lot more chaotic than cranky says, we probably don't know which orbit will be its last -so the impact uncertainty is many thousand miles. Most likely motivations: a fun target, if it works, a good demo (and contracts to follow), bust it up, so hopefully no one gets any pieces that would provide good intel for our enemies. Of course the hydrazine storey makes for good PR.

Any debris will be in an ellipical orbit, which must include the same height (150miles) that the satellite is smashed. All the debris will get at least this low at least once per orbit, so all the debris should experience enough drag to not be too long lived. I think it would be much better debris wise, if they let it get a lot lower before hitting it.

Posted by: bigTom on February 15, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

I recall that the Aegis system was on the US ship that shot down the Iran Air plane 20 or so years ago.

Posted by: charles c on February 15, 2008 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

So, we caused an expensive, highly classified, tactical anti-terrorist asset to fail a year ago so we could fire a shot over the bow of China and Russia a year later.

This is exactly why I can't give any credence to the conspiracy theorists who believe we're shooting this down for any other reason but the obvious: we're afraid that enough of the bird will survive to give away secrets.

It isn't the hydrazine which burns on contact with air, it isn't the infinitesimal chance of this thing hitting someone on the head; we just don't want anyone putting their hands on it.

Columbia, BTW, was a lot lower and going slower in the atmosphere when it broke up, and only the most massive pieces survived that ordeal intact - but there's still a chance that parts of the satellite in question could survive; that's why we want to deorbit tiny pieces instead of big ones.

Posted by: Space Nut on February 15, 2008 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

The problem here is that (per the public story anyway) the controllers have absolutely no communication with or control over the satellite. Which means it is probably tumbling chaotically and there is no way to predict its drag coefficient as moves into the upper atmosphere.

Telescopes. We haz dem. See also: Columbia, Failure to analyze debris impact with.

Posted by: Space Nut on February 15, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

We didn't "cause" the satellite to fail a year ago, whoever said that. Geez.

No, we're just taking advantage of the opportunity to do some saber-rattling.

In a sense, it might be nice if low-Earth space gets cluttered enough to threaten manned space flight beyond shuttle level. We might stop actually taking a trip to Mars seriously when we've done almost nothing to ask about prepping astronauts for the psychological issues of a trip that long, nor have we at all dealt with the issue that radiation in interplanetary space might be high enough to cause serious health issues.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 15, 2008 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

The amateur observers who have imaged this satellite (http://www.heavens-above.com/) were puzzled to find it had no visible solar panels. They're normally gigantic on a satellite such as this -- see pictures of the Hubble Space Telescope for an example of what's necessary to supply power to something that size (one possibility is that it failed before it deployed its panels).

The US spy satellite development teams have been trying to make such satellites more difficult to detect in orbit, to "stealth" them. One way is to provide a more compact power source and do away with the awkward solar panels. A small nuclear reactor on-board is a distinct possibility. It's not a new concept, even in low-Earth orbit satellites -- the Soviets have used them in radar observation satellites in the past as they require a lot more power than visual-range passive satellites. It's worth noting this is an experimental satellite, not a production unit -- it is thought to be carrying a lot of new-design equipment on its first proving flight.

In normal operation a nuclear-powered satellite would be decommissioned after it finished working by boosting the entire satellite into a graveyard orbit well away from the Earth, or if that wasn't feasible the reactor unit alone could be separated from the satellite and graveyarded. Worst case the reactor unit could be disconnected and re-entered in a heat-shielded capsule, to be recovered and safed on the ground.

The operators have lost all contact with this satellite and cannot carry out any sort of safing manoeuvres or operations. If it is tumbling (as it is thought to be) then any reactor on board wouldn't necessarily re-enter on a survivable track, especially if it is still inside the main body of the satellite. The thinking might be that if the satellite is smashed up before it re-enters then a reactor capsule will have a better chance of not burning up in the atmosphere and might be recoverable intact. The missile impact will also disrupt the rest of the satellite and ensure more complete destruction of other sensitive parts during re-entry.

Posted by: Robert Sneddon on February 15, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

were puzzled to find it had no visible solar panels.

Hence, reports that contact was lost shortly after deployment...no power=no comm. Satellites typically have enough stored power on board to deploy solar arrays and receive telecommands for for some time, but it you can't unfurl your power source, you can't talk to ground. If you can't talk to ground, you can't vent your hydrazine to maintain orbit.

Seriously, this thing more than likely has no hazardous material on board besides hydrazine. Why do people have to dream up the most ridiculous theories to explain this?

Posted by: Space Nut on February 15, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Lost has been terrific lately. After a bit of a lull, there was the mindquake that was the end of last season, and the taunt, tense beginning of this one.

And dude, Kate = awesome

Posted by: ajp on February 15, 2008 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

*taut

Posted by: ajp on February 15, 2008 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Tbrosz LIVES!

Posted by: R.L. on February 15, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

". Some experts said the military is seizing an opportunity to test its controversial missile defense system against a satellite target."

That was my first thought. Hubby went with the "stuff on there we don't want anyone else to see" idea, but given how stuff burns up on re-entry, I'm sticking with my theory as most likely.

Posted by: Cal Gal on February 15, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

"Thanks for the thoughtful response." Fat White Guy

No, no, no, no. Thank YOU for making the thoughtful comment in the first place.

Posted by: Cal Gal on February 15, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

> Telescopes. We haz dem. See also: Columbia,
> Failure to analyze debris impact with.

Space Nut: all our science can't predict the trajectory of a single skittle in the tabletop game. We could have a high-def TV camera parked next to the NRO satellite in orbit and still not be able to predict how it will tumble or what its drag coefficient is.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on February 15, 2008 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

I am not sure what the references to the space shuttle Columbia are supposed to mean. Columbia was struck by a terrestrial piece of ice at terrestrial (supersonic) velocities - an accident that can and does happen to airplanes and even cars (at lower speeds of course) every year. It had nothing to do with space debris which is a vastly more complex topic due to lack of friction and other damping forces.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on February 15, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

Aviation Week reports that the satellite (1) had huge solar panels, and (2) never got the chance to unfold them because it failed literally within a few seconds of being released from its upper stage. (This is in AW's Feb. 4 article, which recounts in detail how this is just one aspect of the Pentagon screwing up its development of the entire new generation of recon satellites beyond belief -- and that is a Very Bad Thing to screw up.)

Also, as AW points out, the thing does NOT weigh "20,000 pounds", contrary to those sensationalistic press rumors. It couldn't -- it was launched by a Delta 2, which is a very modest-sized booster. Many recon satellites really are that big, but this one can't possibly weigh more than 6000 pounds or so or the Delta could never have gotten it into orbit (especially polar orbit) in the first place. Which also means it's not carrying all that much hydrazine. (It was, in fact, the first attempt to miniaturize a radar-imaging recon satellite.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on February 15, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

David Kurtz wrote this about the same topic at TPM:

One of the challenges of covering the Bush Administration these days is resisting the temptation to assume that everything they do is a stunt or a con. Sure, more often than not it is. But you have to keep your wits about you.

I think he's got it the wrong way around. With the Bush admin, assuming that most of what they do are stunts and cons is keeping your wits about you.

Posted by: Swan on February 15, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like my initial comment was right. Wired’s Noah Schactman says this is a deliberate shot across the Chinese and Russian bow. One thing he ties in that I didn't think of is the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Treaty, which China and Russia are pushing and we're fighting.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 15, 2008 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

Fat White Guy: I realize it is stretch for some of you lefties but not eveything the government does some sort of evil conspiracy.

Vince Foster: screw you...

Fat White Guy: Thanks for the thoughtful response.

that is sooooo pre-9-11 thinking....


Posted by: Ron Brown on February 15, 2008 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta link to this:

http://www.ovff.org/pegasus/songs/falling-down-on-new-jersey.html

Posted by: grumpy realist on February 15, 2008 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

I'd like to believe that the satellite uses plutonium as a power source and that we want to make sure that no one gets their hands on it.

Posted by: FS on February 15, 2008 at 11:10 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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