Why Did the Government Destroy This Satellite?

On the 14th December 2006, satellite USA-193 took to the sky It's mission and capabilities were top secret

On the 21st February 2008, USA-193 was destroyed by a modified SM-3 missile fired from the USS Lake Erie, west of Hawaii Why did the US government shoot down its own satellite? What was it trying to hide? We know very little about USA-193 It probably weighed over 2,000 kilograms, and was 5 metres long and 2 metres wide With its radar antenna extended, USA-193 was roughly the size of a basketball court It was put into orbit by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, formed in December 2006, just before the launch

But USA-193 was owned by the National Reconnaissance Office, and its precise function and purpose remains classified It was a spy satellite Though USA-193 took two companies nine years and over $5 billion to develop, it was destroyed by the government just over a year after entering orbit Officially, it malfunctioned within hours of launch Power and communications were lost and it became uncontrollable

At the end of January 2008, anonymous US officials reported that USA-193 was in a deteriorating orbit and would crash on to Earth Yet other reports confirmed that plans to destroy USA-193 with a missile began weeks earlier on the 4th January, On the 12th February 2008, President George W Bush approved Operation Burnt Frost

USA-193 would be shot down, at a cost of up to $60 million What could justify this expense? Officially, Operation Burnt Frost’s goal was to ""rupture the fuel tank to dissipate … 454kg of hydrazine [fuel] before it entered into Earth's atmosphere

"" Hydrazine is a commonly used rocket fuel According to the government, USA-193’s fuel tank would have survived re-entry and released the hydrazine as toxic gas US general James Cartwright said anyone exposed to the hydrazine would suffer similar effects to inhaling chlorine or ammonia – a burning sensation in the lungs and, if too close and too much, possibly death However, space exploration consultant Loretta Whitesides pointed out, “Space Shuttle Columbia, and many other disabled satellites, reentered the atmosphere carrying hydrazine and didn't cause a problem Hydrazine is nasty stuff, but like ammonia you have to be near it and breathing it in to get hurt… The odds of [USA-193] hitting [the] ocean, which is under 70% of its [projected] track, haven't changed

” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed that, in the five previous years before shooting destroying USA-193, 328 satellites had fallen out of orbit, with no harm to anybody However, US officials maintained the large quantity of hydrazine on board made USA-193 a special case Immediately, there was speculation that the satellite really had a nuclear power core rather than the usual hydrazine fuel

However, a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it had no nuclear material When asked if they were trying to prevent sensitive surveillance technology falling into foreign hands, US officials denied it They said any confidential components would be burned up in the atmosphere on re-entry, so there was no need to shoot it down to protect state secrets

Therefore, the government’s true motive may be revealed by the events of 11th January 2007 On that day, China destroyed one of its own spacecraft, the defunct weather satellite Fengyun-1C, with a ballistic missile China did not hide the fact it was a test of its anti-satellite technology Prior to this, only America and Russia had tested anti-satellite weaponry The problem was, Fengyun-1C was in a high, stable orbit

When it was destroyed, it produced millions of space debris that went into orbit around the Earth These can travel thirty times faster than a jet plane, and can circle the Earth for over a decade without dropping low enough to burn up in the atmosphere About 40,000 of the Fengyun-1C fragments were more than 1 centimetre across – large enough to destroy other satellites if they collided Another 800 fragments were over 10 centimetres in diameter The U

S objected to China’s anti-satellite test But when they destroyed USA-193, US officials said there was ""no parallel"" with that test

USA-193 was destroyed in a much lower orbit than Fengyun-1C, and its debris fell out of orbit within weeks, not years The Russian government accused the US of using USA-193 as an excuse to test its missile defense program Russia’s defense ministry said the hydrazine fuel was a cover for the test of anti-satellite weapons

They said, ""Such testing essentially means the creation of a new type of strategic weapons… The decision to destroy the American satellite does not look harmless as they try to claim, especially at a time when the US has been evading negotiations on the limitation of an arms race in outer space” If this was the real reason behind shooting down USA-193, it was purely showmanship Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says an object of ten kilograms or even less would be enough to destroy a satellite – it only needs to be travelling at a speed of several kilometres per second to have enough destructive force

When it was destroyed, USA-193 was traveling with a velocity of about 78 kilometres per second The velocity of the impact was about 98 kilometres per second, more than adequate to obliterate the satellite without an explosive payload In other words, any country capable of launching a satellite into orbit, could also shoot one down

Government officials denied Operation Burnt Frost was a response to the Chinese anti-satellite missile test After all, this was not the first time the United States shot down one of its own satellites; an Air Force pilot did it back in 1985 Nevertheless, the amount of hydrazine fuel in USA-193 must have been particularly large to truly be the reason the satellite was shot down It is hard to ignore the feeling that the USA was flexing its military muscles – showing the world that when it comes to war, space is not out of reach

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