Monday, April 02, 2007

Antisatellite weapons - real, rumored, and false

This item on MSNBC is stirring up a lot of comment. My comment: it doesn't deserve the attention.
First, this post needs an extra disclaimer: I have never worked with any intelligence program and have no information other than what's publicly available and my own insights from 15 years of research and writing, as a private citizen, on the capabilities of small spacecraft.
Now, the article. It has two parts. The first concerns questions raised by Democratic Senators about some kind of orbital intelligence-related spacecraft program that reportedly is far over budget. There's no actual information about what the system is, just the inevitable (and if you follow U.S. military space programs, speculation in the press really is inevitable) about whether it's a weapon system, which the U.S. has explicitly said it is not developing.
The second part concerns an alleged satellite called Prowler, launched in 1990, capable of flying from LEO up to GEO and "stealing" signals from other spacecraft close-up. The "expert" who describes this program is unnamed, but there's no reason to think there's truth here. The Air Force has only recently flown its XSS-10 and XSS-11 microspacecraft, which have far less capability than what someone claims we flew 17 years ago. The supposed Prowler also would have needed to fire a large orbit transfer stage, which is a difficult event to hide. You don't just pop up from 300 miles to 22,300.
So all we really know is that some kind of intel program is being attacked for being overbudget. That may be newsworthy in itself, but the rest doesn't merit the hype.

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