April 26, 2008

How Satellite Shot Went Down


Call to Tucson began race to re-engineer missile for space hit

In the early hours of Jan. 4, engineers at Raytheon Missile Systems got a call from a U.S. Navy rear admiral that would turn their lives upside down:

"OK, guys, this is now Job One for a while."

The nation knows the end of the story - a successful satellite shootdown on Feb. 20 that potentially saved lives - but few know the sweat and anxiety that went into the cross-continent effort that included Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and a group of government agencies and labs.

The initial call commenced weeks of behind-the-scenes number- crunching primarily among two major defense contractors, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin Corp., thousands of miles apart.

The mission was a tall order: shoot down a dead U.S. spy satellite before it could crash to Earth and potentially unleash a cloud of toxic fuel. Yet there was little time to mull the difficulties of moving such a mountain.

"We knew we didn't have enough time," said Nick Bucci, the director of missile defense for Lockheed in Moorestown, N.J. "The start date was dictated, and the end date was dictated."

That no-fudge window - about six weeks - sat between the phone call from Rear Adm. Brad Hicks' staff and a "mission accomplished" that would do more than pummel a dying satellite. It would also tamp down criticism of a U.S. missile-defense program while also raising criticism from the Chinese government.

The task of reconfiguring a Standard Missile-3 required more than just pushing a few buttons. In fact, the endeavor needed more than 10,000 runs in a simulator to perfect hitting a fuel tank on the satellite - a hit so close that SM-3 Program Director Phil Poehlman repeatedly described the target window as "really tight."

Just how tight? The satellite, moving at more than 17,000 mph, was roughly the size of a school bus, its fuel tank the size of a bus seat.

Hicks, the program director for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program, was in Tucson last week in part to congratulate the Raytheon SM-3 team. In a recent interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Hicks said the planning was a matter of "racing the clock."

The event would thrust Raytheon onto a world stage.

"High tempo" mode

Raytheon officials knew something was afoot in December.

Around Christmas, Raytheon and the Aegis team had finished up with an SM-3 test from a Japanese naval vessel. That test, the 12th successful intercept-test of the system, hit its target 60 miles above the Pacific.

After the December test, "we went on Christmas break and forgot about it," Poehlman said.

While Hicks was in Hawaii for the Japanese test, he was contacted by the Pentagon and asked to gauge the feasibility of using the sea- based Aegis system to down the rogue satellite, one of several options the Pentagon wanted to evaluate.

"We looked at some old studies we'd done and said, 'It's feasible,' but that was all we knew," said Hicks, a 30-plus-years veteran Navy officer.

Then, on Jan. 3, Hicks got another call asking for a more detailed assessment.

The next morning, with a go-ahead from the Bush administration, Hicks was on the phone to Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

"We woke up everybody in Tucson and Moorestown and the labs," Hicks recalled, and said that this was now the new priority.

A flurry of cross-continent activity began, aimed at shooting the satellite down before it crossed into Earth's atmosphere. Raytheon officials said that people worked long hours, some seven days a week.

Lockheed officials described a flurry of planning meetings with the government officials in that first week.

"There were a lot of trades upfront in terms of, 'What do I need to do? Can I do something better with one thing?'" said Bucci, the Lockheed program director.

When the initial results came in, the Aegis option gained momentum.

"Very quickly, we became the preferred option," Hicks said.

There was also work to be done on the diplomatic side. In a cable sent to all U.S. embassies abroad, diplomats were told to draw a clear distinction between the upcoming attempt and last year's test by China of a missile specifically designed to take out satellites, a test that was criticized by the United States and other countries, The Associated Press reported.

Target "radically different"

An intercept from Hawaii was favored because of the surrounding expanse of ocean, radar and other sensor arrays already based there for missile defense, Hicks said.

Making those factors work in the satellite shootdown required long hours of labor. Not only did three SM-3 missiles have to be reconfigured for the kill attempt, but control systems had to be reprogrammed and a new training regimen had to be developed for the Navy crew that would launch the missile, he added.

First, the required closing velocity of the satellite intercept was roughly three times faster than a normal Aegis mission - about 9 kilometers per second compared with 3 km per second for a missile intercept, Hicks said.

"It flies differently," Hicks added. "(A satellite) is in orbit, and the other one is coming in on a ballistic track, so they're radically different in how we do weapon-systems calculations."

Another sticky problem involved safeguards built into the Aegis system.

"We don't want to engage satellites - we're after ballistic missiles. So we actually have, inside the weapon system, hard-stops to prevent that - we removed those for this event."

Because of the tight deadline, project leaders tried to keep things as simple as possible.

"When we went in and during those six weeks, right upfront we had to make some decisions: What do we need to modify in the missile and the weapon system?" Hicks recalled. "We really focused on doing the very minimal number of changes, to limit variability and unintended consequences, as a starting point."

Up until Raytheon received the call from the admiral's staff in Washington, officials thought little about his team's rejiggering of the SM-3.

"A lot of the work we do is based in modeling and simulation," said Frank Wyatt, Raytheon's vice president of naval-weapons systems. But "the amount of engineering and rigor that people put in is eye-watering."

Other groups that contributed work to the project included Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aerospace Corp., Sandia National Laboratories and the Air Force Space Command.

Sense of pride

On Feb. 20, as Raytheon officials watched remote videos of the mission, the ballistic missile made a direct hit.

The SM-3, launched from a Navy cruiser, flew to more than 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean, striking the tank containing toxic hydrazine on the satellite. The SM-3, which is designed to take out ballistic missiles as part of a sea-based missile-defense system, obliterated the satellite just above the atmosphere.

With that, there were handshakes and high-fives all around.

"It's a huge level of exhilaration to conclude something like that, and to realize you've done something for our nation," said Wyatt. He and Poehlman were in Tucson at the time with an electronic link to a team in Hawaii.

"It's just not a feeling you go home with every day," he said.

Raytheon and Lockheed officials recall the excitement as unique.

What made it different to Poehlman was not that he got many calls, but those that he got from family members.

"It was really quite amazing," he said. "They all knew this was important to the nation."

Hicks, the Navy admiral, said that the 40 or so people on the core team were "wrapped up in this up to their eyeballs."

"They understood exactly what we were going after. And like I said, I think everyone was excited but relieved. Now, I'm getting my life back."

On AzStarBiz: Watch a short video of the missile hitting the satellite www.azstarbiz.com


A U.S. spy satellite carrying secret imaging technology was launched in December 2006 but lost power soon after. The craft had a tank containing 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine fuel. In order to protect against potential loss of life when the 5,000-pound satellite came to Earth, the U.S. military and defense contractors were asked to find a way to destroy the satellite before it entered Earth's atmosphere.

While Raytheon's Standard Missile-3 and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system had been successfully tested against missiles, the proposed shootdown required reconfiguring computers to hit an object the size of a school bus 130 miles above the Earth's surface.


U.S. Navy

* Rear Adm. Brad Hicks, program director for Aegis BMD

Raytheon Missile Systems

* Frank Wyatt, vice president of naval weapon systems

* Phil Poehlman, SM-3 program director

Lockheed Martin

* Nick Bucci, director for missile defense

* Pat Ewing, chief engineer for missile defense

* Jeff Johnson, technical director for Aegis BMD


The Aegis BMD computer systems had to be programmed to engage a satellite - a completely different target from the ballistic missile the system was designed to shoot down, because of its speed, size and trajectory. Three Raytheon SM-3 missiles were modified in case more than one shot was needed to hit the fuel tank. If the satellite were a school bus, the tank would be the size of a seat.


The USS Lake Erie launched an SM-3 intercept missile at 8:26 p.m. Tucson time on Feb. 20. It hit and destroyed the satellite as the spacecraft traveled at more than 17,000 mph.

Because the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude, most of the debris began to re-enter the atmosphere immediately and burned up; the rest was deemed so small as to pose no threat.

Sources: U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Raytheon Missile Systems, Lockheed Martin

* Contact reporter Jack Gillum at 573-4178 or [email protected], or Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at 573-4181 or [email protected]


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