Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/13/us_spy_satellite_rights_enforcement_shoot_down/

US may shoot down spy sat to safeguard tech secrets

Talk about aggressive rights enforcement

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 13th February 2008 12:47 GMT

US defence officials are considering shooting down a rogue American spy satellite in order to prevent its top-secret technology falling into enemy hands, according to reports.

Aviation Week revealed yesterday that Pentagon sources had confirmed the sat shootdown plans, though it is not yet certain that the US will put them into effect.

The surveillance satellite in question was manufactured by arms behemoth Lockheed for the US National Reconnaissance Office, and failed to come online as intended after being launched. Its price is unknown, the purchase having been made using secret "black" funding, but such hardware can be extremely expensive.

The errant spacecraft is expected to start experiencing worsened braking effect from the upper reaches of the atmosphere shortly, within the next few weeks, which will cause it to plunge deeper and so descend to Earth. The exact trajectory and impact point is uncertain, as are the effects on the satellite itself. It might break up into small pieces and be more or less totally destroyed, or substantial parts might come down relatively intact.

The Pentagon has been happy in past weeks for the media - previously including the Reg - to focus on safety concerns such as debris hitting populated areas. The satellite's unused hydrazine manoeuvring fuel - which would have been used to shift orbits and pass over different areas, had the platform actually worked - has also been mentioned extensively.

In fact, however, these concerns are relatively minor. Even if large chunks of satellite did come down in a densely-populated area, the disaster potential is quite small compared to humdrum events such as gales or motorway pileups.

Similarly, while hydrazine is indeed nasty stuff, the satellite's fuel tank poses no great danger. Even in the unlikely event of the tank reaching ground still full and then rupturing, the resulting toxic plume would not affect people further than 20 or 30 yards away.

Similarly, if the satellite were carrying a radioisotope power source (a pint-size nuclear generator, sometimes used on US spy sats and deep-space probes) - which is categorically denied in this case - the danger would not be massive. Several Russian nuclear-powered spy satellites crashed or reentered uncontrolled back in Cold War times, without noticeable effects.

This kind of concern would frankly not be sufficient to get the Pentagon thinking about drastic options such as orbital or upper-atmosphere strikes. Indeed, under some contingencies shooting at the satellite could actually break it up and spread potentially dangerous fragments over a wider area.

If, in fact, the satellite comes down in North America, as the Pentagon has publicly hinted it might, one may be sure that the US spy community will breathe a massive sigh of relief - much though they might not make that attitude public.

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. ®