So, What Does an Anti-Satellite Weapon Actually Look Like?

by Ian O'Neill on April 1, 2008

An anti-satellite missile being launched by the US Navy (credit: US Navy)
In February, the Universe Today followed the sad tale about a dead US satellite called US-193, lifelessly floating around in orbit, possibly threatening the world by dumping hazardous fuel onto a city somewhere. This was the perfect time for the US Navy to launch their Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) into space, smashing US-193 to tiny bits. It worked and it worked well.

Although we’ve seen loads of pictures of the rocket being launched, and the pinpoint accuracy it accomplished by detonating in low Earth orbit, but what technology goes into the actual warhead that takes out the satellite? Well, in an article just published, images of an older generation “Kinetic Energy” anti-satellite weapon are on display. And to be honest, it doesn’t look that scary…

There’s more than one way to kill a satellite. You can make it self destruct by firing its thrusters, sending it in a deadly descent through the atmosphere. But say if you don’t have communication with the craft? You could capture it in orbit using a robotic or manned spaceship. But this would be prohibitively expensive and dangerous. You could simply shoot it down… now this idea (although far from being “simple”) is the most popular and effective method to get rid of a satellite from orbit.

The anti-satellite (ASAT) idea has been around since the Cold War, as far back as the 1960’s, but very little information is available. In fact, according to Dwayne Day’s article in The Space Review on the 31st March, since the Cold War nobody has been bothered to write much about American ASAT technology development, policy, and doctrine. It is unclear if this is down to the military being (understandably) secretive, or whether people simply lost interest in the “Star Wars” program proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

A Lockheed KE-ASAT mock-up (credit: Dwayne Day)

But there are some clues as to the US anti-satellite capabilities back in the 1990’s, namely a cool-looking mock-up of one of Lockheed’s proposals for a kinetic energy anti-satellite warhead (or KE-ASAT, pictured left), the author discovered at the Aerospace Legacy Foundation’s offices located at the former North American Aviation Downey factory. The owner, a Dr. Jim Busby showed off a low fidelity mock-up of a Lockheed KE-ASAT, which he acquired in the early 1990s, when a previous owner discarded it.

The rear of the KE-ASAT (credit: Dwayne Day)

It’s a strange-looking device, resembling a mini-spaceship capsule (although, from the images and description, it is unclear how big it is) that would have sat on top of a rocket booster to send it from the ground and into space to hit its satellite target. This type of anti-satellite does not explode on impact; it relies on huge velocities and a high mass to generate enough kinetic energy to destroy the target on impact.

Some variations on this theme may have included a Kevlar “fly swatter” that would expand on impact, making it easier to hit the satellite and destroy it.

The side of the KE-ASAT (credit: Dwayne Day)

It is obvious from the images that the mass of the warhead is packed in the red cone at the front of the weapon; the infrared heat-seeker targeting system would also be housed there. There is also a main thruster (that would fire to life once the rocket boosters had carried it into space), and attitude controls at the rear to guide the high velocity projectile to its target. A similar method was used by the February 20th US spy satellite intercept, so the proposed technology this KE-ASAT is built on is not far from the current method employed by the US Navy.

Alas, the KE-ASAT never made it to the production line as Lockheed’s bid for use in an anti-satellite program was beaten by the Rockwell company in July 1990, the US Army opted for a far different-looking design, not dissimilar to the ASAT used today. Personally I think the Lockheed concept looked better, but would have been very scary, causing a huge mess

Source: The Space Review

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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