US satellite-shoot effort seeds conspiracy theory storm
Whatever's going on, China and Russia condemn it
Russia and China have expressed concern over US plans to fire interceptors at a malfunctioning American spy satellite in coming weeks before it plunges fully into the Earth's atmosphere. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Washington launched a crash effort to destroy the spacecraft early in the New Year, less than a fortnight after it was launched and failed to come online.
"The Chinese government is paying close attention to how the situation develops and demands the U.S. side fulfill its international obligations and avoids causing damage to security in outer space and of other countries," said People's Republic of China official spokesman Liu Jianchao yesterday, according to a Reuters report.
AFP indicates a harder line out of Russia, with Moscow saying that the intercept attempt is an "attempt to move the arms race into space... [not] as innocent as they are trying to present it".
The Chinese would seem to be taking a relatively moderate line; understandable as they themselves conducted an anti-satellite test last year which scattered a dangerous long-lasting orbital debris cloud - much worse than any likely results of the coming US intercept.
For its part, America has pledged to pay for any damage caused by satellite bits, in accordance with its treaty obligations. Reports now have it that planning for the satellite destruction mission began as early as January 4, just weeks after the satellite was found to be effectively dead following its launch in December.
The Pentagon announced last week that specially-adapted Standard SM-3 interceptor rockets, designed for defence against mid-ranging enemy ballistic missiles, would be used against the descending spy sat. US officials believe that the crippled spacecraft would otherwise re-enter the atmosphere fully and impact the Earth "on or about March 6".
The US military believe it will be passing within the reach of SM-3s launched from warships in the northern Pacific as of early this week, though no firing is planned until the space shuttle Atlantis - currently in orbit on a visit to the International Space Station - returns to earth in two days' time. Once the satellite commences re-entry proper, it can no longer be practicably shot at.
Washington claims that the sole reason for the extraordinary measures in this case is the possibility of the satellite's hydrazine manoeuvring fuel poisoning people nearby after impact. This has met with widespread scepticism, as many objects offering equal or greater potential for danger fall to Earth every year.
Some analysts believe that the US action is actually intended as a message to Russia and China that the US may not possess a formal anti-satellite capability, but that it could have one very quickly should it choose to.
Others dismiss the talk of sabre-rattling against enemy powers, saying that America is the only nation whose military is seriously dependent on satellites, and thus it makes no sense for the US to get involved in a space arms race. These commentators sometimes speculate that the intercept plan is instead a chance to validate the controversial American ballistic missile defence programme - under whose auspices the SM-3 interceptor has been developed.
It is certainly true that a successful shot against the satellite would boost the prestige of the Missile Defence Agency, and perhaps ease some its funding struggles. On the other hand a success for the relatively popular SM-3 might not really help to win cash for other MDA programmes like the raygun 747 or the diplomatically-troubled land-based interceptors.
One might also note that the diplomatic costs of the intercept attempt are already demonstrably a good bit higher than a normal missile-defence test firing. This effort, regardless of results, will cause more foreign-policy fallout than SM-3 launches need to cause. It probably isn't just a chance being grabbed for a free test shot.
One theory which could explain the American urgency to ensure that this particular satellite never reaches Earth is that of US fears over compromise of its secret sensor payload. Just what the experimental spacecraft was supposed to do has not been disclosed, but heavyweight analysts have suggested that it could be a radar-ocean-surveillance job.
Ship-tracking radar satellites have long been a holy grail for well-funded spy agencies, as they could avoid the problems of cloud cover and limited field-of-view (the "drinking straw effect") which plague optical platforms. The Soviet Union once hoped that such technology might let it track US carrier fleets across the oceans - or even, perhaps, allow the location of submarines beneath the ocean surface.
The extreme difficulty of tracking nuclear missile submarines was - and remains, to some degree - one of the underpinning rules of the world nuke strategy game, offering assurance to nations with nuclear subs that they can destroy an attacker even after their own destruction.
Back in the Cold War, the power requirements of active scanning meant that radar satellites were sometimes powered by radioisotope batteries or small nuclear reactors, rather than relatively feeble solar panels. To this day, America maintains a radioisotope-power manufacturing capability for deepspace probes and "national security missions".
Washington categorically denies that the spy bird at the centre of the present rumpus has such a power source, and this seems likely to be true as a lie might be exposed after re-entry by radiological tests. Anyway, the US makes no bones about its use of radioisotope-powered spacecraft when it wants to.
The probable solar-powered nature of the sat has led authoritative space analysts to the belief that the malfunctioning experimental platform is a lower-power radar bird intended to cost less than goldplated models of the past. According to this theory the solar panels of the crippled sat failed to deploy, as the spacecraft shows no sign of them in telescopes.
A cunning new radar bird which could work on cheap-to-deploy solar power might well be a tech secret worth a big effort to safeguard. However, Aviation Week, the magazine which first broke the news of the intercept plan, says that its insider sources offer a different view.
"It's not a radar... [nor] optical or ladar," say the mag's informants. Rather the broken bird is some other kind of relatively cheap, passive low-powered sensor.
That might be no more than an attempt by the Pentagon to downplay the importance of the satellite's payload, in an attempt to big up the official we-just-want-to-save-the-world-from-hydrazine line. Av Week is sometimes jokingly referred to as Av Leak, after all - though usually by envious rival hacks, to be sure.
Or, who knows, the mystery-passive-sensor story could be true. There has been speculation for years that one might perhaps track submerged submarines using various passive means. Magnetic-anomaly detection actually works to a limited degree, though you normally have to be very close to the sub.
Perhaps - and it's a very long shot - the busted satellite (radar or not) was actually supposed to be a working submarine tracker. That would be game-changing kit that America would certainly pull out all the stops to safeguard.
Sadly perhaps, a more prosaic explanation such as cheaper orbital radar seems likelier. What's not credible at all is the notion that this whole business is about a hydrazine fuel tank. ®