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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Spysat SmackDown: A Touch of Star Wars History

All signals are apparently go for the attempted missile smackdown of the errant U.S. spysat and its frozen cargo of nasty-to-be-near hydrazine.

During a Valentine Day Department of Defense media briefing, NASA Administrator, Mike Griffin joined Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey, as well as General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - all there to talk about steps to counter the failed National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft.

It turns out that the NASA chief has some history — not noted at the media briefing — in regards to head-on collisions in space.

Prior to his NASA top job, Griffin held a post at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory where he was a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) project engineer for the 1986 Delta 180 experiment. It was the first space intercept of a target during powered flight - codenamed Vector Sum.

That experiment involved two Delta upper stages that were intentionally collided in low Earth orbit, orbital debris expert, Donald Kessler, advised me. The planning of that event was classified at the time, but is listed in the History of On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentations, issued by the NASA Johnson Space Center in July 1998.

Kessler worked with Griffin at that time as part of a safety panel to ensure that the experiment did not cause a hazard to other spacecraft. Griffin, the entire SDIO team, along with NASA, performed a safe experiment, obtaining loads of data in the process, Kessler added.

Griffin is very much aware of what could be done in the slamming of the rogue U.S. spysat, Kessler pointed out. “The on-orbit issues are nearly identical as in 1986 and the NASA orbital debris team has since developed the capability to understand the hazard on the ground,” he added.

“So NASA did have a lot to bring to the table for the spysat case,” Kessler concluded.



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