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The Baffling NRO Satellite Shoot-Down … an In-Depth Enterprise Analysis

Part I

By Richard C. Hoagland
(C) 2008 The Enterprise Mission

 


Well … they did it!

The US Navy -- in typical John Paul Jones/Oliver Hazard Perry fashion (… “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” - below) -- made the “extremely difficult” ultimately look easy … the night of February 20, 2008—

 

 

That’s when the US Navy launched a modified SM-3 missile (above) from the Aegis cruiser “USS Lake Erie” (hence the Perry reference …), stationed a few hundred miles west of Hawaii, to intercept a rapidly descending “dead” US intelligence satellite ~150 miles over the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Minutes later -- at a closing velocity of over 22,000 miles per hour -- the converted Aegis missile smashed the intel satellite into a thousand, spinning fragments (below)!

 

 

Much has been written in the last few weeks regarding the critical need for the Pentagon to pull off this “impossible” technological assignment. We ourselves summarized these official reasons here at Enterprise just a few days ago.

In this new article, however, we present additional technical and political information, crucial now for understanding why the preceding “official satellite story” may, in fact, have been nothing more than an elaborate, government charade all along -- designed to cover the real reasons for the “sudden, urgent shoot-down.”

So, let’s begin at the beginning ….

 


* * *

 


After a US spy satellite (USA 193) went silent (shortly after launch, very late in 2006), the uncontrollable ~5000-lb NRO spacecraft – laden with about 1000 pounds of a deadly rocket fuel, called “hydrazine” -- began its inexorable “death spiral” back into Earth’s atmosphere.

Just over a year later, on January 4, 2008 (according to the official story), the White House and the Pentagon -- alarmed by the imminent reentry (within a couple months!) of the massive, bus-sized satellite, filled with half a ton of hydrazine (an especially toxic rocket fuel ...) -- decided to attempt an emergency shoot-down.

However, within days of this secret government decision, the news of the “imminent, uncontrolled return of the failed spy satellite … carrying its ‘1000 pounds of dangerous hydrazine’” … broke publicly. And suddenly, every web outlet … from mainstream news sites to specialist blogs … was filled with “death-bringing, falling satellite” stories.

Again, according to the official story, a high-level “tiger team” – consisting of about 200 industry and government experts -- had been hastily formed within the Pentagon on January 4th. This consisted of anti-missile defense, naval, contractor and intelligence experts familiar with the NRO satellite’s parameters, as well as the technical requirements to potentially shoot it down.

Within mere weeks, under this remarkable “crash” Pentagon program, a solid plan -- focusing on using a modified Aegis anti-missile “SM-3 system” (below) – had been selected.

 

 

This involved the critical modification, again on an unprecedented crash basis, of three standard “SM-3 missiles” – converting them from their intended “anti-ballistic missile interception capability” to a very different “satellite interception mode.” Also created in record time was a tactical “shoot-down plan” (below) – forced by events to intercept and “kill” USA 193 within the most difficult technical “window” imaginable -- just before reentry (so the resulting impact debris and hydrazine would quickly burn up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere …).

 





After presentation of this emergency Pentagon Plan to the White House on February 12th (so the official story continues …), President Bush himself formally approved it the same day.

The core of the plan was to be a non-explosive ~6-lb “kinetic warhead” (below) -- part of a highly modified infrared/optical sensor/computer guidance system -- mounted atop a three-stage solid-fueled missile (below) -- to literally smash into the descending satellite at over 20,000 miles per hour … creating a “kinetic kill” equivalent to “a 10-ton truck … hitting a brick wall faster than a jet at 600 miles per hour.”

 


The resulting “explosion” (roughly equivalent to 120 pounds of TNT delivered on target!) was expected to not only pulverize the ~5000-lb intelligence satellite into literally thousands of small pieces (most “no larger than a football ...”), the high-energy impact (with proper last-minute targeting) was also hoped to precisely hit the critical on-board hydrazine tank – thus releasing the dangerous fuel directly and harmlessly into space, well before reentry.

The myriad fragments of the satellite, created by this shattering physical impact, were then projected to harmlessly burn up in the upper atmosphere along the satellite’s orbital track -- most within a time-frame estimated by the experts as “… from a few days to a few weeks.”

Stills from the Pentagon video of the event (below), released a few hours after the successful February 20, 2008 intercept (and compiled in this graphic by Enterprise), reveal the true extent of the Navy’s (sorry) “smashing success ….”

 




In the first shot (upper, left), the bright flash of the kinetic warhead impact is clear. In shot #2, the expanding cloud of released hydrazine vapor is unmistakable – indicating that the shot successfully pinpointed the fuel tank and destroyed it! By #3, the hydrazine vapor is mixing with visible bits of solid debris from the shattered structure of the satellite itself. And, by #4 these thousands of fragments are seen tumbling away from each other in the obviously complete destruction of the spacecraft ….

And here (below) are a couple of shots by "Rob" – an amateur astronomer located in Hawaii -- who managed from the summit of Haleakala on Maui, with off-the-shelf optical equipment, to not only image the actual moment of impact ~150 miles above the northern Pacific (below)—

 

 


 

But (on the following orbit …) the possible vapor trail from 193’s dissipating hydrazine cloud -- released by the high-energy SM-3 impact, which he captured reentering the upper atmosphere northwest of Hawaii (below).

 




* * *

 


Technical brilliance of an amazing US Navy accomplishment aside, as soon as this “impending satellite crisis” was leaked to the press (in late January, 2008), I couldn’t help but begin to seriously wonder over key aspects of this rising, officially expressed “deep concern” over the imminent reentry of this object.

Being somewhat familiar with previous satellite reentries, including the infamous Skylab "uncontrolled reentry" of 1979 -- ~75 tons of dead weight, reentering the atmosphere at ~17,500 miles an hour, that ultimately landed safely in the Australian outback -- all this sudden furor over this reentry ... of only a "couple of tons" ... was quite puzzling.

Could there be something unique about this "intel satellite," such that it was causing all the official concern ...?

Within a few days of the news -- that “an errant, mystery satellite is soon going to uncontrollably reenter the Earth’s atmosphere” -- a group of space hobbyists around the world (who routinely track such "black ops missions”) were able to publicly identify the spacecraft:

A secret military "radar imagery" mission, code-named "USA-193" – launched by the National Reconnaissance Organization (the NRO) December 14, 2006 (artist’s concept of deployment of solar panels and high-power radar antenna from main "satellite bus" – below).

 



Official sources soon were forced to confirm this public identification, adding that “shortly after the satellite reached orbit, ground controllers lost the ability to control it and were never able to regain communication.” Further, these sources reiterated that they now “had no control over the nonfunctioning satellite and that it was unknown where the debris might land.”

Soon after 193's launch, some dedicated amateur astronomers -- equipped with off-the-shelf small telescopes and CCD imaging technology (the same chips used in commercial megapixel cameras and cell-phones) -- were able to take blurry images of the defunct satellite; these revealed enough detail (below) to confirm that after launch, USA-193 apparently failed for (some reason ...) to deploy its solar panels from the main “bus” (as required - above) -- obviously resulting in the rapid loss of electrical power, leading to the subsequent computer failures and, ultimately, loss of all further satellite control.

 

 

This poster (below) was prepared by an English amateur astronomer, John Locker -- one of those able to secure actual telescopic CCD images of the failed satellite, this one in September, 2007. The graphic he subsequently prepared illustrates the main hypothesis: that a simple lack of solar power (from the obvious failure to deploy the critical solar panels ...) ultimately doomed USA-193 ....

 


All in all, a pretty complete picture of “what” was coming back to Earth … and “why.”

But, nothing to shed light on the increasingly puzzling, ever more urgent mystery: “why was everyone in the US military establishment suddenly so worried about this satellite … and now?”

Knowing that “what goes up into low Earth orbit … must eventually come down,” why had the NRO, the Pentagon and White House WAITED over a year … before they suddenly became “all hot and bothered” by the imminent reentry of USA-193, now projected for “sometime in late February/early March, 2008?”

And—

Why hadn’t anyone informed them of the “~1000 pounds of hydrazine on board” -- inevitably coming (uncontrollably!) back to Earth -- when they first lost their satellite control, back in 2006?!

Even with all this supporting technical detail, “something” about this entire "falling satellite story" just didn’t … ring right.

 


* * *

 

By the time the Pentagon’s February 14th news conference was held (below), formally announcing the President’s February 12th official shoot-down decision for this “dangerous satellite” (curiously, on Valentine’s Day …), the entire, increasingly “hysterical” atmosphere around this satellite's descent had taken on some truly surreal qualities.

 

 

First major “anomaly”:

“Valentine’s Day” – February 14th -- the date curiously chosen by the White House and the Pentagon to unveil this unprecedented “emergency shoot-down,” is also a key NASA ritual date (being a Middle Ages transformation of a much older Greek and Roman ritual celebration of Lupercalia -- an archaic rite connected to “fertility,” “wolves” ... and Mars … all without any overtones of romance). We have previously documented this remarkable (if unsung) “Valentine’s Day NASA ritual association” in papers published here on Enterprise, as well as in our New York Times bestseller – also covering NASA’s not-so-well-known history -- “Dark Mission.”

Public confirmation that NASA, a “civilian space agency” -- certainly not expected to be programmatically involved in this NRO intel satellite fiasco – was, in fact, somehow “directly involved” after all, came as a surprise to many. It was confirmed via the highly visible presence of none other than NASA’s current Administrator, Dr. Michael Griffin (below – right), participating in the Pentagon’s Valentine’s Day elaborate “shoot-down” briefing!

Joining Griffin to talk to reporters that day, on what was being planned to “alleviate the USA-193 threat,” was Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright (center - below) -- Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the major “briefer” on the situation -- and Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor (far left - below).


 

If nothing else, this high-profile NASA involvement in the curious “sudden NRO satellite crisis” strongly supports one of our long-standing, major contentions -- both here and in “Dark Mission” -- that NASA is, in fact, first and foremost a national security agency.

According to its own 1958 Congressional Charter, Section 6 “… no information which has been classified for reasons of national security shall be included in any [NASA] report made under this section [of the Charter], unless such information has been declassified … by the president [emphasis added].”

Griffin’s active participation in this impending military crisis -- just as we’ve asserted and documented on other occasions before – supported anew that NASA is not just the “benign civilian space agency” everyone has believed it to be for almost fifty years—

But is, in fact, an official (if clandestine) arm of the intelligence community, and … the Department of Defense.

Griffin’s official participation in the briefing, of course, admitted none of this.

His presence was ostensibly explained as merely due to the “coincidence” that the critical orbital window for shooting down USA-193 opened on February 20 -- the same day that the on-going Atlantis STS-122 Shuttle Mission, then docked at the International Space Station (ISS), was scheduled to return from orbit.

According to Griffin, his prime reason for being at the Briefing was to attest, on behalf of NASA and the crews of the Space Shuttle and ISS, that the “shoot-down” operation for the failed NRO satellite was safe -- to both crews. And, to that end, wouldn’t even begin until Atlantis had safely landed; ISS, in its higher orbit (about 50 miles above the decaying 193 …), was expected to be safely out of reach of any cloud of “shrapnel-like debris” kicked temporarily into higher trajectories by the intercept/explosion.

[Other debris analyses strongly disputed this latter point; some estimating that the intended shoot-down actually raised the danger level to the Space Station from manmade debris impacts -- by a factor of seven!

 

 

[David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, reminded everyone in subsequent days that NASA's debris models seriously underestimated the amount of shrapnel produced by China's unnannounced test of an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own weather satellites just a year earlier, in January of 2007 (below - dedris in red).

 


[Wright’s conclusion: the risk of creating long-lasting debris from destroying 193 with a missile, debris that could seriously threaten the ISS (which orbits at about 211 miles) and other NEO satellites, while certainly not as large as the disasterous results from the Chinese test … was not “negligible” – as Griffin claimed.

[This, of course, only increased the mystery around why the Pentagon – if the prime rationale overall around the planned shoot-down was to save human life (as James Jeffrey, the Deputy National Security Adviser insisted; “This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings …”) -- was obviously determined to proceed. And why Griffin -- with the lives of three of “his’ astronauts at increased (even if small …) risk on ISS -- was also agreeing!]

Unstated in this debate was another remarkable “coincidence”:

That (according to Griffin’s official biography at NASA), the Administrator himself had formerly served as “… deputy for technology at the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization [emphasis added].”

All of which was fascinating ….

And all of which still didn’t begin to address the “sudden, almost panicked urgency” for shooting down this satellite … and in the face of serious, quantifiable risks to known humans (the ISS crew …) -- after over a year of everyone previously simply ignoring 193’s inevitable return … along with its “~1000 pounds of hydrazine.”

 

* * *

 

Immediately after announcement of the Administration’s intended Plan to deal with the “193 satellite problem,” and its core-reason for a “shoot-down” – the ~1000 pounds of “dangerous hydrazine” on-board – other space experts began to weigh in.

Remarkably, dozens of professionals – all across the Internet -- independently agreed that the Pentagon’s prime stated reason for carrying out this unprecedented shoot-down – the hydrazine -- was “totally unfounded.” Said one bluntly:

“Having the US government spend millions of dollars … to destroy a billion-dollar failure … to save zero lives … is comedic gold."

Or, this comment from another space security expert:

“Everything they said made sense … except for the reason for doing the intercept in the first place [emphasis added]."

To another expert, the specifics revealed just how “silly” the official Pentagon/NASA rationale truly was ….

“The hydrazine tank [aboard 193] is a 1-meter sphere containing about 400 liters of hydrazine. The stated hazard area [in the Pentagon February 14th Briefing] is about 2 hectares, something like 1/10,000,000,000 of the area under the orbit. The potential for actual harm is unbelievably small. Which means the hydrazine rationale just doesn't hold up, literally not within orders of magnitude [emphasis added].”

A conclusion independently supported by the reaction from this veteran space security specialist:

“The cynic in me says that the idea that this is being done to protect the lives of humans is 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 [from this reentry] 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 … So pretty much everything else you can think of (including getting hit by an asteroid/comet) is many times more likely than dying from this [emphasis added] ….”

In point of fact, there were 42 major space reentries in 2007 -- including 9 satellites. Added to that, roughly 8-12 upper stages that originally contained UDMH [unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine -- another form of the same rocket fuel] reentered, after placing their respective spacecraft in Earth orbit during 2007 – all likely containing some residual propellant in the tanks as they fell back to Earth.

That NO ONE on Earth, in this same time frame, was either hit or injured from all this space debris literally “raining down” from orbit in one year, is blunt testimony to the whole political charade occurring around this satellite reentry … USA-193.

Or, as another expert -- Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center -- told the Washington Post.

“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 [emphasis added].”

 

* * *

 

So what, then, could have been the real reason for “the Emergency?”

Many mainstream analysts, groping through this “fog of war” for a logical rationale behind this otherwise (based on the scientific evidence) totally illogical decision, turned to the nature of the satellite itself: a classified reconnaissance payload, for the super-secret NRO.

Could all the furor over 193 have been as simple as the fact that, for obvious reasons, the Pentagon simply didn’t want the unique reconnaissance technology on board this NRO super-secret satellite to fall into “enemy hands” …!?

At least one observer of all the fuss -- former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, Philip Coyle -- definitely thought so.

"The spy agency doesn't want some part of the satellite to fall into the wrong hands," said Coyle, now a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. "I don't think that's being emphasized enough as a motivation for NRO to want this thing to be shot down."

However, this simple and obvious explanation was also resoundingly denied by the Pentagon -- both during the February 14th Briefing, and after.

“While details of the satellite are classified, that has no bearing on the decision to shoot it down, Cartwright said. “The temperatures from [normal] reentry would burn up any classified system on the satellite.”

“What is different here is the hydrazine," the Vice-Chairman reiterated. "In this case, we have some historical background that we can work against for the tank that contains the hydrazine. We had a similar one on [the Space Shuttle] Columbia that survived reentry [below]. We have a pretty reasonable understanding that, if the [USA-193] tank is left intact, it would survive the reentry [emphasis added] ….”






Cartwright's "reentry would burn up any classified system on the satellite ..." statement, of course, totally ignored the fact that a critical data recorder [flight data OEX (Orbiter EXperiments) recorder] from Columbia -- with on-board sensor information from the launch and first ~half hour of the flight, then, the last 15 minutes of reentry, including the critical break-up itself – actually did survive the Columbia's fiery destruction over Texas … intact!; in fact, it was only from the incredible “miracle” of this crucial recorder’s astonishing preservation during reentry (below), that NASA was able to precisely reconstruct what happened to Columbia at all ….

 

 

But, despite this (also known …) amazing but real historical precedent – critical mission information (and technology!) surviving an uncontrolled break-up and reentry from orbit -- the official Pentagon/NASA position on USA-193 was that the shoot-down had nothing to do with “preserving US intelligence secrets” from the Russians or the Chinese ... but only “saving human life.”

The final possibility: that the Bush Administration simply wanted to “send a strong US ant-satellite capability message to the Chinese (and the Russians …),” after the Chinese anti-satellite weapons test of January, 2007, was also resoundingly denied.

“It's a one-time deal," Cartwright said in answer to a reporter at the Briefing, who asked whether the modified Standard Missile 3 (below -- at the moment of the February 20th launch) should be considered “a new U.S. anti-satellite weapon technology.”



 

The outside experts, again, strongly disagreed.

“My real concern,” said one professional, “is that this is simply a knee-jerk reaction made by the Administration in response to the purported threat by the Chinese. Since the April [sic] 2007 ASAT test, there have been rumors and whispers going around that the Administration and like-minded individuals are looking for more sticks (instead of carrots) to use against China. While this "shoot down" is not a direct action against China, it would be a clear signal that the US can possess an active ASAT capability at any time if it so desires. That is a serious development, as the previous US ASAT system using F-15s was mothballed in the 1980's ….”

Another:

“The dead U.S. satellite is to be struck at a significantly lower altitude than other space assets. However, that could prove even more of a challenge to the Navy than any future anti-satellite operation because spacecraft on lower orbits typically travel at higher speeds …

“The upcoming shot — using a sea-based Standard Missile 3 developed for regional and tactical missile defense — could thus prove to be a useful test for less demanding intercepts that might someday follow … The higher a satellite is [in space], the slower it moves, more or less. This is a perfectly good ASAT test ….”

The bottom line of most independent analysts was that, in fact, the “193 Navy shoot-down” was a not-so-well-concealed A-sat test – aimed directly at the Chinese (and, to a lesser extent, the Russians) by the Bush Administration. And, the negative geopolitical (and even technological) consequences of that deliberate policy decision, in their expert opinions, were expected to be profound ….

“It was an unfortunate choice by the United States that seems to have been unnecessary. The fact is that satellites fall from space all the time and the risk of it was fairly minimal," noted Stephen Young, the senior analyst in Washington, D.C., for the Union of Concerned Scientist's Global Security Program. "But the implications of the satellite shoot-down could be very severe. We're talking about a potential arms race in space [emphasis added] ….”

“It's a step backward in terms of weaponization of space, because whatever the U.S. government's official stance is, the world perception is that this was an ASAT test," said Phil Smith, assistant director for Research and Planning for the Secure the World Foundation. "Perception is everything as they say in politics. It's perceived not only in that way, but that the U.S. is being somewhat hypocritical when it condemned the Chinese launch and [then], of course, they went ahead and did something that is going to be perceived as being just about the same [emphasis added] ….”

 

 

* * *

 

 

This, then, is where the “mainstream” analysis of this puzzling -- even baffling -- geopolitical enigma ends … and our Enterprise investigation fundamentally begins.

As we document repeatedly in “Dark Mission” -- in covering fifty years of NASA’s covert history--

“The Lie is Different … at Every Level.”

From the full spectrum of the mainstream analysis presented here, it should be clear at this point that the baffling “shoot-down” of NRO 193 has fully lived up to this revealing intel motto: because, in the final analysis, no one seems to have a clue as to the real reason for the inexplicable, contradictory White House/Pentagon/NASA actions or pronouncements over this extraordinary incident.

But, there is a reason for this ... a startling, ritual reason!

And, as we shall see in Part II, there is far more lurking behind this “inexplicable satellite emergency” than has been admitted by anyone so far -- by either the White House ... the Pentagon—

Or NASA.

And … surprise, surprise … it involves the Moon.

 

 

Stay tuned.

 


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