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.
- Juniper Honors 12 Americas Partners
- Facebook And Four More Web Sites We Love To Hate
- Cisco Honors Top Partners During 2010 Partner Summit
- HP Salutes Top Partners At APC 2010 Award Show
- Upclose And Personal With AMD And friends
- Will Oracle's Phillips' Affair Revelation Be A Distraction?
- Apple, Microsoft Unlikely Allies Against Google
- HP-Microsoft Cloud Partnership Needs To Show Us The Goods
- Blog: It's Time For A Cybercrime Public Service Announcement
- Nortel Sell-Off Continues: Ethernet Business To Ciena?
- Want To Deploy Exchange 2007 SP2 In A Server 2008 R2 Domain? Sorry
- Apple Improves iTunes 9 With Syncing, Visual Enhancements
- Oracle Ad Refutes Sun Hardware Fears
- U.S. Copyright Chief Rips Google Book Deal In Testimony
- Apple Slashes iPod Price Tags
- Price Is Right? Asus To Launch Low-Cost E-Reader
- Microsoft Xbox 360 Consoles Fail More Often Than Wii, PS3
- Privacy Group To Congress: Stop Online Advertisers In Their Tracks
- Microsoft, Intel Tout Their Collaboration On Windows 7
- Tech Data Adds Integration Services With New Center