Outside View: ASAT weapons -- Part 1

By YURY ZAITSEV, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Feb. 22, 2008 at 3:08 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

MOSCOW, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- H-hour -- the time American spy satellite USA-193/NROL-21 had to fall -- was calculated for March 6. Where the crash would have taken place would have been unknown until the last moment. A more or less accurate site can be established only an hour or two before a satellite enters the denser atmosphere.

In an attempt to control the process, the United States decided to destroy the satellite with sea-based interceptor missiles. It successfully did so on Wednesday.

Instances of uncontrolled de-orbiting of satellites, including ones weighing a good deal, are not rare. In January 2002 the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer, 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 10 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 1 meter in diameter reaching the ground is practically zero.

When Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov made a crash landing, his descent capsule, weighing 3 tons, measuring more than 6 feet 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 de-orbiting?

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.


(Yury Zaitsev is an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories