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Friday, January 16, 2009

Secret Micro Sat Mission Fuels Space War worries

Mitex_01 An American missile-warning satellite has died, more than 22,000 miles up. So now, the U.S. is sending a pair of mini-spacecraft on a top secret operation to investigate, Craig Covault reports for Spaceflight Now. If the mission is successful, analysts say, it'll have a global impact. Because the same technologies used to investigate a friendly, out-of-service satellite could also be used to help take out an enemy orbiter.

In June 2006, a Delta 2 rocket launched a pair of Darpa spacecraft into geosynchronous orbit. The stated goal of the "MiTex" (Micro-satellite Technology Experiment) project was to have the 225-kilogram ships inspect each other, while twirling around the planet. Equipped with advanced thrusters, batteries and solar panels, the two tiny satellites were meant to be more maneuverable, and longer-lasting, than almost anything else in its class. For two years -- as far as we know -- the pair did their inspection pas de deux, tens of thousands of miles up.

Then, the Defense Support Program DSP 23 missile warning satellite failed. It was a major blow because it carried "a sensor package designed to detect whether rogue nuclear powers like Iran or North Korea were conducting secret nuclear tests [from] deep space," Covault writes. "That capability [died] with the loss of DSP 23."

But it gave the MiTex craft a new mission: find out why the 5,000-pound orbiter dropped dead.

Imaging of the satellite could possibly show damage from a micrometeorite hit or perhaps a bent antenna. Radio data obtained up close could also perhaps detect a malfunctioning circuit or computer. And the exercise of coordinating the Mitex visits to the DSP in itself is valuable to Darpa.

In addition the Delta 2 that launched the Mitex spacecraft from the Cape here was a unique four-stage version that used a new, solar array-equipped upper stage developed at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) near Washington, D.C. This new NRL upper stage is itself an important new military space element, that in the future could allow the delivery of small covert spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit.

"One cannot escape the fact that this technology, while potentially extremely useful in diagnostics of sick and ailing birds, also has tremendous potential for ASAT [anti-satellite] missions. It's stealthy, highly maneuverable, potentially lethal in more ways than one -- with potential kinetic, electronic or laser-killing payloads," Theresa Hitchens, the former director of the Center for Defense Information, tells Danger Room.

The Chinese -- who have taken American heat for their own ASAT test -- "will complain to the international community," says Greg Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"If this story was that China had secretly developed inspection satellites and orbited them around one of their failing satellites, what would be the reaction from the U.S.? I'm betting on hysteria," Hitchens adds. "It behooves the U.S. government to be more transparent itself if it wishes others to open up about their programs; doing this in secret only adds to the suspicions of other nations [about] U.S. intentions and provides political cover for others who may not have benign goals in mind."

[Photo: Spaceflight Now]
By Noah Shachtman