A BUMPY RIDE FOR STAR WARS

antisat_calmseas_popularmechanicscom.jpgMy Santa Cruz correspondent was nearly incoherent with rage, disbelief and fear. “Have you seen the news?” Rich Valles spluttered. “There’s this toxic satellite falling to Earth and the Navy’s supposed to shoot it down. But they can’t. The ocean’s too choppy!”

“Hold on,” I barked into the phone. “What are you saying? The Navy can’t use an expensive onboard weapons system because the sea is too bumpy? Didn’t the manufacturer gyro-stabilize the thing? I hope they get a refund.”

“Dude,” Rich came back, “I’m telling you. They can’t hit a bus 150 miles away!”

In Nelson’s day, seamen understood that ships sashayed in an ocean swell. Not wanting to fire at fish, gunners gauging the set and scend of the waves waited to fire their cannons on the upwards roll. In modern naval gunnery, computers can send a shell the size of a VW bug into someone’s parlor a dozen miles away. But it’s apparently too tough to fire a guided missile “on the roll” with crockery clattering in the galley, and the OOD up on the bridge waiting for the Old Man to stop cursing his spilled java and those pesky seas to flatten.

“Don’t worry,” I told Rich. “I’ve been to sea. I’ll call the Navy Department right away with a head’s-up: ‘Stand by, swabbies! You might not be ready for this. I hope you can handle the news: the ocean is bumpy. You might want to take that into consideration when designing your ships and multi-billion dollar weapons systems.”

Rich wasn’t laughing.

“Maybe they can get the Chinese to shoot it down for them,” I suggested. “They did a good job on that Japanese spy satellite a while back.” Before they whacked one of their own.

I was already tapping the keyboard like an Aegis missile defense operator.

HYDRAZINE HOAX – AND COVER-UP
Yup. Here’s AP reporting: “Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite is out of control, the satellite would be expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft would be expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would scatter debris over several hundred miles.” [AP Feb 20/08]

And here was Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey saying the spy satellite – designed to photograph naked Russian sunbathers with eye-popping resolution – carries 400 liters of hydrazine rocket propellant that could release “toxic gas” over a “populated area” causing a “risk to human life.”

That sounded like a terrorist attack to me. If not outright discrimination against nudists.

But here was Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Wizard General James Cartwright pooh-poohing the threat. Cartwright reassured reporters that the resulting “mild chlorine gas poisoning” (similar to the mustard gas that maimed hundreds of thousands of young men in Flanders’ fields while their generals sipped cognac in more aromatic breezes), would only cause “burning in the lungs” and “elsewhere.” Assuming you and your family were not shredded by space shrapnel, the area affected by the hydrazine gas cloud would be “roughly the size of two football fields.”

Think of it as another Superbowl lottery.

One space expert calculated that this official “hazard area” would be “something like 1/10,000,000,000 of the area under the orbit… Which means the hydrazine rationale just doesn’t hold up, literally not within orders of magnitude.”

After all, he went on to point out, “several other hydrazine-filled object have come crashing down to Earth.” The space shuttle Columbia’s hydrazine tank survived violent re-entry without releasing a toxic gas cloud. And space researcher Ed Kyle counts 42 “major reentry objects” for 2007 alone – including 9 satellites. No hydrazine hassles there. But with incoming space junk arriving every nine days or so, you might want to duck.

And don’t forget to count eight to a dozen upper stage boosters, which also came down in 2007. At least one “probably contained several hundred [kilograms] of residual propellant.”

Forget anti-missiles. Why isn’t the EPA enforcing America’s anti-pollution laws? A U.S. Air Force study says that alumina particles and chlorine burned in rocket fuels during dozens of satellite and shuttle launches every year leaves a persistent ozone hole “tens of kilometers” wide – and hundreds of miles long. [“Stratospheric Ozone Reactive Chemicals Generated by Space Launches Worldwide” Space And Missile Systems Center Nov 1/94]

Another veteran space security specialist scoffs at what he terms, “simply a feel-good cover story tossed to the media. It is true that hydrazine is very toxic and could result injury or death, but the odds of this happening are minuscule. The average person in American is many thousands of times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by any falling debris. In fact, no one has ever been killed by space debris… Having the U.S. government spend millions of dollars to destroy a billion-dollar failure to save zero lives is comedic gold.”

Make that $60 million to modify the anti-sat missile. America’s three million homeless and 35 million hungry people might have some better spending suggestions. [Reuters Nov 14/07]

SPACE PIMPS AND STAR WHORES
“There has to be another reason behind this,” Michael Krepon agrees. “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.”

So what’s up?

Krepon observes that the Missile Defense Agency “is always looking for ways to pimp their systems and provide further justification that they work. The upcoming change in Administration is almost guaranteed to result in missile defense losing the top-level advocacy that it has enjoyed for the last several years. Any additional missions and justifications that the missile defense community can provide would increase the likelihood of their systems (and budgetary power) surviving.”

Then there’s China. Was the Celestial Kingdom playing with more faulty chips?

“While this ‘shoot down’ is not a direct action against China, it would be a clear signal that the U.S. can possess an active ASAT capability at any time if it so desires,” he added. “The U.S. has been berating the Chinese on their ASAT test, but now demonstrate that it is okay as long as it occurs at a low enough altitude to prevent long-lasting debris and can “save lives”. This is close to an implied ‘ok’ for the U.S. and other nations to conduct more ASAT tests, which could open another arms race. I am also certain that Russian and China would also see this as a slap in the face as they are trying to revive the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space treaty discussion and ban on space weapons. It would further negatively affect the relations between them and the US. Which could lead to increased tensions, arms buildup, etc etc etc. Nothing good for anyone outside of arms manufacturers and politicians that need a bogeyman to scare people into voting for them.” [blog.wired.com Feb 15/08]

If it works.

A BETTER THAN ZERO CHANCE OF SUCCESS
China, Russia and sorely abused American taxpayers may receive another message entirely if the Navy shoots. And misses.

Happily, the cruiser USS Lake Erie steaming north of Hawaii can fire a second SM-3 missile if the first one spears a following sea. But don’t hold your breath without an aqualung. With the next launch window already slammed shut on embarassed fingers, a senior officer at the Pentagon explains that America’s super-expensive, super-exotic weapons can only protect against space attack when it’s nice out. “We don’t anticipate the weather being good enough today,” the officer said. Tell that to the alien space invaders! [AP Feb 20/08]

As the Associated Press went on to note: “The military has readied a three-stage Navy missile, designated the SM-3, which has chalked up a high rate of success in a series of missile defense tests since 2002. In each case it targeted a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, never a satellite. A hurry-up program to adapt the missile for this anti-satellite mission was completed in a matter of weeks.” [AP Feb 20/08]

But wait! Those tests, like all anti-missile “tests” – was rigged. As Wired’s Noah Shachtman points out, the 12 out of 14 “successful” intercepts of the SM-3 were made in frigid space at altitudes over 100 miles, where incoming short- and medium-range ballistic missiles provided “hot targets” for the SM-3’s heat-seeking guidance system. All trajectories were known in advanced and carefully arranged to ensure budget-building “success”.

“Those engagements are quite scripted,” insists the Pentagon’s former director of missile testing. “All the pieces are in the right places so the engagement can occur.” The former director explains that the SM-3 is so slow, the Navy’s three Aegis anti-missile ships “are always located within a range that makes it possible for their missiles to reach their target.”

But not to worry. As Gen. Obering explained in 2005, “We have a better-than-zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead.” [blog.wired.com Oct 3/07]

TAKING THE SHOT
Raytheon, makers of the over-hyped Patriot missile, also makes the AM-3 interceptor. According to the company, about 30 seconds before intercept, the SM-3’s Kinetic Warhead separates from the rocket’s third stage and immediately looks for its target based on telemetry received from the ship that fired it. An Attitude Control System is supposed to precisely maneuver the solid, non-explosive interceptor warhead to hit the incoming warhead head-on – with the equivalent energy of a 10 ton truck hitting a bus at 600 miles per hour. (Actual combined collision impact is more than 2,300 mph.)

Problem is, the SM-3’s last-moment maneuvering system has been scrapped after its ceramics kept cracking like bad pots. And the sexy interceptor’s “long-wavelength imaging infrared seeker” is not intended to differentiate an incoming warm target against the surrounding warm atmosphere. And then there’s the speed factor. As David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, “This interceptor is really intended for missiles traveling at 3 to 4 kilometers per second; the satellite they’re going to be shooting at has a speed of 7 to 8 kilometers per second.” [blog.wired.com Oct 3/07]

Oh dear.

Victoria Samson is a missile specialist at the Center for Defense Information. Even if the Pacific calms down enough for the Navy to launch it’s modified anti-satellite missile within the next three days, she comments: “If it doesn’t know what to look for, it is unlikely to make an intercept. And since the tests to date have all been highly scripted, the system has not had any practice of on the fly (if you’ll excuse the phrase) intercept attempts. [blog.wired.com Feb 15/08]

Either way, what about the resulting space trash? “I am very worried about the debris creation — particularly the debris that the light-weight interceptor will kick into higher orbits when it hits the massive (bus-sized) satellite,” writes space security expert, Jeffrey Lewis. “Cartwright said 50% would come down within two orbits, with the rest coming down in weeks and months… But those two orbits could be hairy. And some of the debris will remain in orbit.” [blog.wired.com Feb 14/08; ArmsControlWonk.com]

Talk about Astronaut Roulette! There are already more than 9,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth. Measuring from 4-inches to more than 5,500 tons, the debris left by Russian, U.S., French, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and European rockets totals more than 2 million tons. American military radars, which were supposedly “incapable” of tracking huge airliners on the morning of 9/11, can spot baseball-sized objects up to 600 miles away. [AP Jan 20/06; space.com Oct 19/00]

OH OH, CANADA
Rich chuckled grimly.

“I heard it’s coming your way.”

“Now you’re making me nervous” I shot back. The last time the Americans crashed one of their satellites here, it scattered hot nuclear debris all over the Yukon. That plutonium – the deadliest, most persistent toxic substance known on Earth – was a bitch to clean up.

Sure enough. Wired is reporting: “Satellite Shoot-Down Set: Intercept Near Hawaii; Debris Cloud Over Canada.”

Say what?

A veteran satellite-watcher told the online mag, “To my considerable surprise, it’s on an ascending pass that will take the debris cloud across central Canada a few minutes later. Then across a bit of western Africa and eastern Australia.”

Hey, thanks guys! I guess Fallujah wasn’t enough for you.

A sat watcher named Zarya observed that the rogue spy satellite, designated USA-193 so that no one will forget where this mess came from, could be intercepted heading southbound over the Pacific at eight in the morning Eastern time on February 21st. Which doesn’t leave me much time to start digging. Assuming a “successful” intercept, at least for the first orbit “the debris cloud would appear to steer clear of densely-populated zones.”

And the subsequent orbits? (I almost typed “obits”.)

But that southbound shot isn’t going to happen.

“There are some disadvantages in the southbound option,” Zarya explained. “The interception would occur in the Earth’s shadow, so optical tracking close to the event would not be possible. And the next few orbital passes overfly significant population centres” – including (wait for it) Africa, the Middle East, other south Asian states, Europe, southern Russia (where Putin is already pissed at Bush), and the Peoples’ Republic of China (ditto). [wired.com Feb 19/08]

Note to the White House: Shooting satellites down over other people’s heads is considered an Unfriendly Act. Can you spell w-a-r?

Out of the blue, Rich announced that he was not feeling safe.

“I’m having second thoughts about going to the beach,” he told me, his voice rising. “They aren’t going to shoot it down! What if this thing was an asteroid?”

I was thinking the same thing.

What could I tell him? No matter which way the pieces fly, this looks like yet another Lose-Lose scenario from those Masters of Mishap.

And American voters want to wait another year?

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