Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The ghost of ASATs past

The recent U.S. shootdown of a failing reconsat, preceded by the Chinese test of a low-orbit antisatellite (ASAT) weapon, have generated new interest in ASAT programs, past and present. The U.S. has only had one operational ASAT, the direct-ascent nuclear-tipped missiles of Program 437 (operational from 1964-72), but there have been many ideas, concepts, and R&D programs that, for one reason or another, stopped short of operational status.
Dr. Dwayne Day, a well-known military space historian, recently found an overlooked relic of one of these. The Army had a program called Kinetic Energy ASAT (KE-ASAT) which began in 1991 and continued for several years, surviving on Congressional earmarks even after the service decided it had higher priorities. Boeing built three prototypes of this system, which extended a large "flyswatter" to disable enemy satellites without creating a debris field.
What Day describes in the article linked above is a model labeled KE-ASAT which does not resemble the Boeing prototypes. It apparently was built by Lockheed as part of its losing bid for the KE-ASAT program. Its dominant feature is a large nosecone, something very odd to see on a satellite. This may have contained Lockheed's own version of the flyswatter.
COMMENT: I am strictly speculating here, but, unlike the Boeing hardware which extended from one side of the ASAT vehicle, this design with its nosecone housing might have used an "uncoiling" circular device, descended from the 4m-wide "umbrella skeleton" of Lockheed's 1980s Kinetic Kill Vehicle (KKV) used in the Homing Overlay Experiment antimissile tests. The metal skeleton used on the KKV could have had a flexible "skin" added for this version to reduce debris from the collision with the target satellite.

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