Feeds

US may shoot down spy sat to safeguard tech secrets

Talk about aggressive rights enforcement

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

In reality, the primary worry for the US military is that the satellite's highly-classified surveillance technology might survive the re-entry and come down in territory controlled by an unfriendly foreign power. It might then be subjected to reverse engineering; or at the very least, enemies of America might learn a lot about US orbital imaging capabilities.

America has sunk billions of "black" dollars into spy satellites, seeking capabilities such as synthetic-aperture radar imaging. This could offer the ability to track individual ships across long ocean passages, for instance, even beneath heavy cloud cover. Rumour has it that the falling spy bird now due to come down might be of this type, perhaps using cunning low-power tech to avoid the use of expensive radioisotope generation.

The idea of secret satellites re-entering uncontrolled and landing fairly intact in the wrong place has long been an established nightmare for the US intelligence community; so much so that it has been used in movie plots. (An example is GI Jane, a film principally about a woman undergoing US Navy SEAL special-warfare training. However, at the end when the SEALs need to go on a real mission so that Demi Moore can win acceptance from the misogynist master chief, they are sent to recover a spy sat downed in enemy territory.)

This time, according to Aviation Week, the Pentagon planners are considering smashing up the satellite before it has dropped properly into the atmosphere. Even the mighty American military (probably) has only a few options here.

One answer might be to fire one of the Missile Defence Agency's (MDA) Ground-Based Mid-course Interceptor rockets at the errant sky-spy. These are designed to put a "kinetic kill vehicle" in the path of a ballistic missile warhead outside the atmosphere. They should be able to knock out the satellite if it passes within reach of the operational interceptor bases (in Alaska and California). The missile technology is still under development, though the MDA has claimed successful tests.

Another option might be the use of an Standard SM-3 interceptor fired from a US Navy Aegis warship. The SM-3 cannot hit targets as high as those reachable with the shore-based missile, but it is said to be capable of dealing with less-capable theatre range ballistic warheads. As the spy sat descends, there may be a part of its trajectory where an SM-3 could nail it - if a suitably armed US cruiser or destroyer were able to reach the right place quickly enough.

These are drastic options, and the fact they are apparently being seriously considered strongly suggests the rogue sat is on course to come down somewhere unfortunate.

No doubt the SEALs and others in the US special-ops community are also considering their options, as well as the missile-defence targeteers. But if the satellite seems likely to crashland deep in eastern or northern Asia, for example - probably in China or Russia - they may not even be able to reach it. In other regions they might be able to reach the secret hardware first and get away again afterwards; but doing so might mean a serious diplomatic incident, or even a shooting war.

All in all, then, the US government might well prefer to wreck the satellite thoroughly while it was still thousands of miles from its impact site and a hundred-plus miles up.

However things turn out, the next few weeks could be interesting ones. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
MARS NEEDS WOMEN, claims NASA pseudo 'naut: They eat less
'Some might find this idea offensive' boffin admits
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
Comet Siding Spring revealed as flying molehill
Hiding from this space pimple isn't going to do humanity's reputation any good
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
No sail: NASA spikes Sunjammer
'Solar sail' demonstrator project binned
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
Human spacecraft dodge COMET CHUNKS pelting off Mars
Odyssey orbiter yet to report, though - comet's trailing trash poses new threat
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.