It’s raining satellites

Other News Materials 21 February 2008 13:58 (UTC +04:00)

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - H-hour - the time American spy satellite USA-193/NROL-21 must fall - is not far off. American scientists calculate that it will occur on March 6. Where the crash takes place will be unknown until the last moment. A more or less accurate site can be established only an hour or two before the satellite enters the denser atmosphere.

In an attempt to control the process, the U.S. has decided to destroy the satellite with sea-based interceptor missiles.

Instances of uncontrolled deorbiting of satellites, including ones weighing a good deal, are not rare. In January 2002, the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), weighing some 3.5 tons, fell to earth. Most of its fragments burned up in the air, while some smaller parts fell into the ocean. America's Skylab and Russia's Salyut-7/Cosmos-1686 - each weighing ten times as much as USA 193 - also went rogue.

In 50 years of space exploration hundreds of satellites have crashed down, but no incidents involving loss of human life, or material damage, have been reported.

Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency Roskosmos, was thus ignoring history when he endorsed the American decision. His arguments that satellite remnants "could kill a person, damage a house or hit an oil storage tank, producing a chain of further disasters," are not credible.

So what is behind the decision to shoot the crippled satellite down with a missile?

The reason given - to destroy a fuel tank containing half a ton of frozen hydrazine - does not hold water. Hydrazine is a fuel used by launch vehicles, including Russia's Protons. In crash landings, it usually burns up in the lower atmosphere, with the rest reaching the earth with missile debris. That is not very comfortable, but not deadly. In the case of USA-193, the probability of a thin-walled tank one meter in diameter reaching the ground is practically zero.

When Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov made a crash landing, his descent capsule, weighing three tons, measuring over two meters across and protected with a massive heat shield was completely melted. Only the titanium frame survived. And what was left of Columbia as it burned when deorbiting?

The American administration is anxious to destroy the satellite for a different reason, or rather two reasons.

The first is to keep what the satellite contains secret. The only thing known about it is that it belongs to the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The spacecraft was designed to test new technologies for the development of spy satellites of a new generation.

Photometric measurements failed to identify any solar panels on USA-193. It may well be that they did not unfold as the craft separated from its launch vehicle. Some experts, however, believe that they were not provided in principle because the satellite was powered by a nuclear reactor. In which case matters could take a nasty turn.

The Soviet Union once used sea reconnaissance and targeting satellites with nuclear power packs aboard. Upon completion of their duty, they would be elevated to a so-called "burial orbit," to circle the earth for hundreds of years. But one of the satellites, while still active, got out of control, descended from orbit and, partly collapsed, fell in the north of Canada. Radioactive pollution was insignificant, but the Soviet Union still had to compensate Canada for damage.

Perhaps the U.S., fearing similar developments, made up its mind to destroy the spacecraft before it enters the denser layers of the atmosphere.

The other - and most likely - reason for destruction is to test anti-satellite weapons on the quiet. The tests will be conducted under conditions as close to real warfare as possible. To destroy the satellite, three destroyers with Standard Missile-3 rockets and a floating radar similar to the American missile defense radar will be used.

If one destroyer misses, the other two will take turns in firing their missiles. At the same time, the Pentagon has kept suspiciously silent on the consequences of interception. There has been no analysis of the potential effect on space activities, including manned flights. The interception, if successful, could leave thousands of fragments, some quite large, that could rain down on a much wider area.

Some of the debris could rise to higher orbits and stay there for a long time, posing a threat to low-orbit spacecraft, including manned ones. Recall the uproar in the American press when a Chinese weather satellite was destroyed by a missile launched from the earth. One of the satellite's fragments was reported to be on a collision course with the International Space Station (ISS), requiring an urgent adjustment of the station's orbit. That time the alarm proved false, but the situation could change if a larger and heavier American craft is blasted.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the decision to destroy USA-193 was taken only a few days after the U.S. turned down a draft of a treaty banning weapons in space, submitted to the world community by Russia and China.

The Americans have long stopped worrying about Russia's "asymmetrical" responses to U.S. military power. Not so China. Last October, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in one of his remarks that the importance of unrestricted access to space gained urgency when China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile. He said that American low-orbiting spacecraft were vulnerable and called for protection and an appropriate response.

This seems to be why George W. Bush decided to destroy USA-193: to test a new type of strategic weapon and check the feasibility of a national anti-missile shield in an anti-satellite role.

Russian experts are not alone in this analysis. Michael Krepton, director of the space safety project at the Henry Stimson Center, also believes that the actual motive for destroying the rogue satellite is to test anti-satellite weapons in space. He also warned that the administration's official reasons were not to be trusted.

Yury Zaitsev is an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research.

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