Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kaboom! Go Navy! NROL-21 hit by USS Lake Erie

The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

A missile fired from a US Navy warship has hit a defunct spy satellite in space in an effort to prevent its toxic fuel tank from crashing to Earth, a Pentagon source says. "The missile's been launched and (it was) a successful intercept," the source said.

The AP has a few further details.

The USS Lake Erie, armed with an SM-3 missile designed to knock down incoming missiles — not orbiting satellites — launched the attack at 10:26 p.m. EST, according to the Pentagon. It hit the satellite as the spacecraft traveled at more than 17,000 mph.

Because the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude at the time it was hit by the missile, debris will begin to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere immediately, the Pentagon statement said.

"Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days," it said.

The use of the Navy missile amounted to an unprecedented use of components of the Pentagon's missile defense system, designed to shoot down hostile ballistic missiles in flight — not kill satellites.

The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates — not a military commander — was to make the final decision to pull the trigger.


Blogger Tony said...

The funny thing is, this is the hardest possible way to do the job.

It seemed so ironic to see the Atlantis Space Shuttle landing tonight, and just before the total Lunar Eclipse, when she could have stayed up there and done this job much more logically. A big fat missile ship in the sky, ahhhh.

How many space-mod AMRAAMs could Atlantis hold, and how far and how fast could they go in the vacuum of outer space? Talk about Brilliant Pebbles, it would be Brilliant Avalanche!

Ahhh, we can dream, can't we?

Meanwhile, we'll do it the hard way, make it fair for the other guys, shoot re-entering vehicles down from the pitching decks of cruisers and destroyers upon the open seas.

2/20/2008 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

Meanwhile, we'll do it the hard way, make it fair for the other guys, shoot re-entering vehicles down from the pitching decks of cruisers and destroyers upon the open seas.

The easiest and only way is always the Way Things Are Done Around Here. I remember an old story which went like this. The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force were given the job of measuring the height of a building.

The Navy Way was to measure out a distance from the building and note the angle from that point to the building's summit and by trigonometry calculate the height of the building.

The Air Force Way was to go to the top of the building with a stone and stopwatch and by timing the fall of a stone calculate the height of the building.

The Army Way was to send a soldier down the length of the building by rope to measure it off with a six inch ruler.

The Marine Way was to blow up the building, gather up the debris and weigh it, and from a table provided by the Corps for such types of buildings look up the height of the former structure.

We all know what the Best Way is.

2/20/2008 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

I wonder if/when we'll learn whether only one missile needed to be launched.

I hope the Russians and Chinese got an eyeful.

While this is in the new someone needs to hold Hillary and Obama's feet to the fire and get their their opinion on National and Theater Missile Defense.

AFAIC if they, as President, kill or "defund" these programs right when they're showing real promise, then that's a betrayal of sorts, IMO, a gross breach of that bit about "defend" in the oath of office.

2/20/2008 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Ballistic missiles move at sub-orbital velocities.

That is, satellites move faster than ballistic missiles; otherwise the ballistic missile would become a satellite, or if moving fast enough, escape Earth's gravity entirely.

I know I'm trafficking in the bleedin' obvious... I'm just pointing out that the shot demonstrates clearly that the United States now have redundant capabilities to shoot both incoming warheads *AND* satellites. I know--- there have already been tests of satellite-busting missiles, some even launched from high-flying jet fighters.

But this demonstration serves as another warning to its potential adversaries that U.S. technology has advanced several jumps ahead in its ability to "take out" the space assets of the more advanced foes.

Now, if we could just come up with a foolproof way to derail the plans of terrorists to blast all creation…

2/20/2008 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

I wonder what additional modifications would be needed to take out this one?

If you've never fire it up, J-Track 3D gives you a real time viewer of all satellites in Earth orbit if you have Java installed. You can drag in the window to see the planes in which the sats stack up quite easily.
J-Track 3D

2/20/2008 10:23:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

While I agree this says something about the capability of these ABM rockets remember what Bruce Lee said: "boards don't fight back."

This was a school bus flying through space. Enemy missiles would have countermeasures, MIRVs etc.

2/20/2008 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Tarnsman said...

Wonder if Nancy and Harry will stand on the steps of the Capitol and announce that this missile strike was a complete failure.

Hey, Dimwits! Thought you guys said this would never work. Proof of concept. Reagan was right, again!

2/20/2008 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

The "school bus" was an exaggeration by about a factor of 2 I believe.

Since the dead satellite was cold, relatively speaking, it was still a pretty good test of the discriminating power of the sensor net.

So far I think the only people with MARV warheads are the Russians.

2/20/2008 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger MKSheppard said...

Enemy missiles would have countermeasures, MIRVs etc.

Actually, decoys and countermeasures don't work.

It's not really that hard to pick out the "live" RV from a swarm of decoys.

1.) The IR signature of an actual nuclear warhead is quite distinguishable against a very cold background of space, because the fissile material in the warhead generates a unique internal signature (remember, plutonium is warm to the touch); oh I wonder why we put a IR seeker on our Kill vehicle....

2.) As the targets start to enter the Earth's atmosphere; it means the much lighter decoys will decelerate much more rapidly than the actual, much heavier, warheads.

In all, to defeat ABM, you would need a decoy that pretty much for a multitude of reasons is the exact same shape and weight of the real warhead.

With that in mind, why carry decoys, when you could use that precious throw weight to toss an actual warhead instead?

So far I think the only people with MARV warheads are the Russians.

Great! I love MARVs. The weight and size needed for an actual manouvering warhead means that instead of 12 warheads, you can only carry 1 or 2. That means I've "shot down" 84% to 92% of your warheads without firing a shot.

2/20/2008 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's been amusing to watch the "size of a school bus" comment proliferate through almost every news article, even though it's completely wrong. The main structure of NROL-21 is (was!) roughly 4' square by 7' long. Aviation Week had an article about it a few weeks ago. Doesn't anybody in the AP or the major media do any technical fact-checking any more? How simple can you get?

2/20/2008 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

From (q.v.):

The looming U.S. Navy attempt to shoot down a dying satellite could demonstrate an anti-satellite capability for its missile defense system.

A successful kill would mark the first time the United States uses a tactical missile to destroy a spacecraft — assuming that the ship-based missile defense system can handle the high closing speed of more than 22,000 mph.

"Everything becomes much more stressful at these large closing speeds," said Geoffrey Forden, MIT physicist and space expert. "But if they do hit it, that'd be very impressive, and that'd be proof that it has ASAT [anti-satellite] capability."

2/21/2008 12:04:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

MKSheppard asked an interesting question:

"With that in mind, why carry decoys, when you could use that precious throw weight to toss an actual warhead instead?"

The Mk-6 RV (Reentry Vehicle) used with the Titan-II ICBM was originally designed to use decoys. The adapter section between the Titan-II second stage and the Mk-6 originally had doors on it that would open after the vehicle was out of the atmosphere and then eject decoys. This capability was successfully tested with the early Titan-II development flights. However it appears the decoy capability was never actually used in the operational Titan-IIs. For some reason, the USAF decided the decoys were not needed. Another curious feature about the Mk-6 RV was the original design had a spherical section base that would have added significant dynamic stability to the RV (better accuracy). However it appears this original spherical section base was replaced with a simple flat plate base early in the RVs development. Presumably the spherical section was deleted because it would have intruded into the adapter section where the decoys were kept. However the spherical section base was not reintroduced when the decoys were deleted from the design. Perhaps(?) it was decided the W-53 warhead didn't really need all that much accuracy. Sometimes I wonder if the Mk-6 / Titan-II was designed to actually be used or was just a bluff.

2/21/2008 12:10:00 AM  
Blogger John Hawkins said...

Hmm. Internet cables mysteriously getting cut in the Gulf region, Syria's air defense grid going on vacation as Israeli airstrikes go by, and now a "wayward" spy satellite shot down by a ship-based missle in a very public "humanitarian" act.

Is there a message being sent?

Maybe those mysterious hackers who keep poking at our networks are being told that we have our own ways of, ah, launching a DoS attack.

2/21/2008 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger LifeoftheMind said...

mkshephard said

2.) As the targets start to enter the Earth's atmosphere; it means the much lighter decoys will decelerate much more rapidly than the actual, much heavier, warheads.

Yes but, the counter measures force the ABM system to target after the warhead enters the atmosphere and is accelerating on reentry. That is a much shorter time period and much harder than when the target is still outside the atmosphere. Ideally you would target the ICBM during its boost phase. I remember hearing the US Navy picked a North Vietnamese Mig off the runway with a Talos missile. That was good shooting.

2/21/2008 01:58:00 AM  
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2/21/2008 04:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jim in Virginia said...

Re "size of a schoolbus". I recall (the exact detials escape me) that in the 70's President Jimmy Carter mentioned that our satellites could detect objects as small as a Volkswagen. Later in the day a government aide "clarified" that the President was incorrect and our technology was not nearly that accurate.
Of course the tech was better than that.
COnfusion to our enemies!

2/21/2008 05:01:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Please go back and read my post from yesterday in regards to the challenge of having to feed multiple tracking sources and analyses to the launch ship.

And consider the statement at the news conference by the Vice Chairman of the JCS: “The netting of the sensors was the key part that came from missile defense.”

And you CANNOT define an orbit based on 3 points if it is a DECAYING orbit!

This represented a considerable technological challenge – and an even greater organizational one, take it from me.

2/21/2008 05:13:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Jamison said...

I believe, (someone will no doubt correct me if I am not), if you were to launch a missile from a shuttle in space, both would move in opposite directions. In other words you would launch both the missile and the shuttle through the missile's force.

I am in no way an expert in this so I welcome critique on this point. I will learn something new.

2/21/2008 07:06:00 AM  
Blogger John F. Opie said...

Hi -

The implications of the successful shot are pretty broad.

1) Functioning ABM defense ship-based, Aegis ships qualify. World-wide mobility, impossible, basically to tell where the ships are, world-wide, in order to launch where they aren't.

2) Tactical implications for Taiwan and Japan are significant.

Now, shameless plug, read this for more on the implications:


2/21/2008 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger MKSheppard said...

Yes but, the counter measures force the ABM system to target after the warhead enters the atmosphere and is accelerating on reentry. That is a much shorter time period and much harder than when the target is still outside the atmosphere.

Not really. We were potting incoming re-entry vehicles inside the atmosphere in the 1970s.


23 December 1970 - Interception of ICBM nose cone.

17 March 1971 - First salvo launch. Two Sprints launched less than 1 second apart intercepted a Minuteman I RV launched from Vandenberg.

7 May 1971 - First intercept of a SLBM by Sprint on a Polaris launched from USS Observation Island.

Some factoids:

- The Sprint accelerated at 100g, reaching a speed of Mach 10 in 5 seconds.

- It was designed to intercept incoming RVs at an altitude of 5,000 to 98,500 feet; well within the atmosphere.

2/21/2008 07:37:00 AM  
Blogger MKSheppard said...


And you CANNOT define an orbit based on 3 points if it is a DECAYING orbit!

This represented a considerable technological challenge – and an even greater organizational one, take it from me.

You fail to realize that we were doing this long ago. What do you think a ballistic missile re-entry vehicle is in? Yup, a decaying orbit.

Some more fun facts; the Indians(!) have their own ABM program; and it's a throwback to the good old 1950s of NIKE. Their interceptor doesn't even have a kill vehicle; it's a giant radio-controlled rocket. What the Indians do is track both the target and the missile with radar; and send command signals to the missile so that the two tracks merge.

They've recently scored several successes with it.

By the way; one of the major "obstacles" touted in the 1970s against ABM was that it would be "impossible" to build a computer fast enough to handle a continental-wide ABM system.

One such estimate was that 40~ million calculations per second would be needed to deal with inbound targets, flight trajectory calculations, et cetera.

Nevermind that in 1964; Seymour Cray's CDC 6600 could do about 10 MFLOPS; which means that it's perfectly adequate for ABM defense computing; since you will not have one really big computer, since that would be a target, but lots of smaller ones networked across the country each handling the defenses for that sector of the country.

Of course, by 1971; Cray's CDC 7600 was up to 36 MFLOPs, meaning that with some optimization a single computer could do all the work.

Computers continued to get more and more powerful, what with the microchip revolution; in 1979, the Motorola 68000 was released, giving you 1 MIPS of power in a nice little chip. You may know it from the Sega Genesis Console. 1 MIPS may not sound like much, but the 68000 is small and cheap; which means you can gang a whole bunch of them together to form a relatively powerful "cube" which you can then have several at a single location, meaning you have redunant backups, so if one computer goes bad, use another one.

By 1992, with the release of the Intel 486DX chip (54 MIPS); you could handle ABM calculations on your home PC. So the "it's too complex!" argument doesn't, (and never has) hold water.

2/21/2008 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

I wonder if there is a list of the things that you can't do, because they are truly impossible, as opposed to merely difficult. E.g. exceed the the speed of light, trisect an angle with a compass and straight edge, build a perpetual motion machine that does useful work, ...

2/21/2008 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...


That's ridiculous!

A ballistic missile trajectory is nothing like a spacecraft re-entry.

We have a two foot stack of books here at the office on re-entry related topics we are using for the analysis we are doing on the ESA space station module. Maybe you should take a look at those materials some time.

2/21/2008 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger MKSheppard said...

A ballistic missile trajectory is nothing like a spacecraft re-entry.

Actually, they pretty much are. What do you think Celestial mechanics are, but ballistic trajectories writ large? The big differences are in re-entry velocity and angles.

Sorry if I'm being a bit sanguine with my comments; but we solved all the problems required for ABM back in the 1960s and 1970s; and then deployed a functioning ABM system called SAFEGUARD.

Which was then killed after ONE day of operation by Ted Kennedy and Congressional Democrats who defunded it.

The problems that NMD has had for the last ten years (1998-2008) or so are similar to the problems that were encountered during the "shakedown" process of the 1960s which took us from NIKE-HERCULES to NIKE-ZEUS, and finally to a functioning, integrated system by the 1970s in SPARTAN and SPRINT.

Then we threw it all away. We've had reinvent a lot of the work and do it over again, because the hardware for the old Safeguard system no longer exists, and it would have been cost prohibitive to revive SPRINT/SPARTAN, so we had to certify and integrate a completely new system in SM-3 and in GBI; and that took a lot of time and money. Now, it's working and shaken down.

In a way, it's very much similar to what NASA is doing with Project ORION; they're having to reinvent all the Apollo-era technologies, and then integrate and certify them for a moon mission; since the base for Apollo is long gone.

2/21/2008 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

"Then we threw it all away...the hardware for the old Safeguard system no longer exists, and it would have been cost prohibitive to revive SPRINT/SPARTAN"

Well they weren't accurate enough -- after all they were tipped with nukes because the accuracy just wasn't possible back then.

That said, hopefully someweher the technology in the SPint missile is being recycled/updated -- that puppy accelerated at 100!Gs and was shaped like a cone rather than a typical rocket, essentially like a powered hypersonic RV.

I've been making the argument elsewhere about the post-Nixon hostile Dems killed Sageguard out of equal parts spite and appeasement -- and must never be let slide that the USSR kept *it's* working ABM system the whole time, not tempted in the slightest to ditch it because our idiots pulled the plug, or that it was imerfect, or expensive.

I'm very afraid this forgotten history will repeat itself with a Dem lock on the government.

A long time ago, in the mid 80s, I learned to do some of the college level orbital calculations myself. I think the difference between a ballistic missile RV and a decaying satellite are real though a matter of degree -- the RV is on high a parabola, punching through the atmosphere in a specially designed nosecone, designed to be predictable. OTOH a totally non=aerodynamic satellite in an elliptical orbit whose perigee is repeatedly clipping the fringes of the atmosphere, much less predictably, is a hairier problem.

2/21/2008 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will have to agree with MKSheppard. There is no such thing as stealth in space. Decoys would be easily spotted with current computer tech and sensors. Ballistic Missile trajectories are just orbits that intersect the Earth's surface just like SpaceShipOne. In fact as noted before, they are sub-orbital, they are slower than orbital and deep spacecraft. Countermeasures won't work in space (no stealth, no stealth tactics). Computer calculations are more than adequate against ICBMs and Moore's Law spells doom for them.

2/21/2008 04:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To read about stuff on space combat, checkout Atomic Rockets.

2/21/2008 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Speakeasy: They wouldn't shoot rockets like slugs out of a shotgun to sustain such recoil to their natural inertia. I'm just guessing, but they would probably do some kind of magnetic release and gentle gas rockets to get away from the mothership before lighting off the rocket motors. They'd already be going 25,000 mph or so, they'd have a good head start, and wouldn't cause any problems like you might cause by diving out of a canoe.

The real problem is: Space is so large, even in LEO.

The solution is: We're going to need a lot of these space-based AEGIS cruisers. I say we go with updated X-15's. We could have C-5 and B-52 Aircraft Carriers full of the suckers on constant patrol.

A few points:

1. Wait a minute, "counter-measures in space" are simple radar awareness of approaching vehicles and tiny little jets (compressed gas even) on any surface to push the vehicle around in an almost resistance-less orbit. Like the attitude controllers on the X-15.

2. Russians aren't the only ones with MIRV's, there are the French, Brits and other allies, perhaps. The Clintons invited the Chicomms into this club for campaign donations, as conclusively proved by all the guilty pleas by everyone from Lippo to Loral.

3. The NROL-21 was launched on a Delta 2, which as we all know can't fit its shroud around anything larger than un Deux Chevaux.

2/21/2008 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Giya said...

Mad Fiddler,

Actually I believe the speeds are fairly similar. The average speed of a ICBM during boost phase is about 7 km/s. Reentry of an ICBM is typically about 4 km/s. That all translates to 25200 km/h for boost and 14400 km/h for reentry or 15658 mph and 8947 mph for boost and reentry respectively. Anyone know average ICBM speed for mid-phase?

Here's the gotcha part though. The satellite was in a predictable orbit. Ultimately the Navy could have taken multiple shots and there were no real time constraints. At least not compared to a real missile-to-missile kill where the flight time of an ICBM might be 30 minutes or less. The margin for error shrinks considerably. Not to mention the consequences of missing.

I'm not downing the achievement though. Clearly lots of folks on the other side are crapping their pants. Only one country on earth could have accomplished this feat. Go USA!

2/22/2008 09:22:00 AM  

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