Atom Wave: Death of a Spy

Atom Wave

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Death of a Spy

As many of you know, the spy world is rich in intrigue; from the shooting down of Gary Powers in a U2 during the cold war to the selling out of the American Fat Man bomb design to the Russians by Klaus Fuchs. Today much of this drama is history, but there is still much unknown: but this story is not about history.
Right now an experimental spy satellite is in a decaying orbit and will likely fall back to Earth next month. Not much is known about this bird, but it was put aloft in December 2006 aboard a Delta 2 rocket. It is suspected to be an advanced radar-imaging platform. Soon after reaching orbit, communications broke down and it has been out of control ever since.
Now satellites fall back to Earth all the time, and it is seldom a major deal. Much of the planet is ocean and it doubles as a celestial graveyard. The only real concern is that a national secret could come into the ownership of one of our enemies.
While we are on the subject, I have a tale to tell about a clandestine program named MISTY. It was a program to develop a stealth surveillance satellite and the first one reached orbit in 1990 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Within weeks of its deployment, reports circulated that it had exploded. Now incidents such as this aren’t without precedent in spaceflight, but they are rare. Observers like Ted Molczan soon became skeptical of the event, and now they are certain that it was a sleight of hand. Teledyne Industries in Los Angeles filed a patent 5,345,238 in 1994 that called for an adjustable cone-shaped balloon to deflect radar, thermal, and optical radiation.

If correct, then the satellite would have deliberately shed debris before inflating its balloon. After that, it was free to change orbit and throw off the Russians.
In 1999 it is suspected that a Titan 4B rocket deployed the next MISTY in the series from California. The current best evidence is that Congress has canceled the program under the consensus that it is obsolete.


The Pentagon has announced that it intends to destroy the errant satellite within the next two weeks using a ship launched anti-ballistic missile. The order to shoot down the satellite came directly from President Bush. The plan is to attack the satellite just before its orbit decays, to insure that any remaining debris is vaporized on re-entry. A Navy Standard 3 missile is currently being modified for the role of sending the kill vehicle aloft. The official line is that the President is concerned about the release of a 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine fuel still aboard the satellite. Unofficially, you can be sure that it is actually the classified payload. The silver lining to this deal is that if they miss, they will still have two or more chances to hit it before it decays.


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