HomeNews & PublicationsFeatured StoriesAPL Team Plays Critical Role in Destroying Errant Satellite 

August 15, 2009

APL Team Plays Critical Role in Destroying Errant Satellite

When a dead U.S. spy satellite carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine fuel was headed back to Earth, APL staff members held strategic positions on a secret team of experts that was quickly assembled to safely destroy it. Concerned that the non-functioning satellite could impact a populated area and release toxic hydrazine, the President of the United States ordered it to be shot down. Code-named “Burnt Frost,” the operation required the team to figure out a way to catch up with the satellite, traveling at 17,000 mph, and take it out quickly and safely.

Leading up to that decision was an intensive 4-week effort that involved leading experts in missile systems, aeronautics, spacecraft, orbital mechanics, and mission system design. About 40 APL staff members worked with industry partners (Lockheed Martin and Raytheon) and other defense laboratories The team designed a plan that, although unproven, was based on extensive expertise, simulation, and evaluation. The critical challenge was determining how to shoot down a satellite traveling much faster and higher than ballistic missile targets normally would, using a defense system designed to avoid hitting satellites.

APL has more than six decades of experience with Navy missile programs.  The weapon of choice, determined in part by APL-derived analyses, was a modified Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). The team had to determine how to take down a satellite traveling much faster and higher than the ballistic missiles that the Navy Missile System was designed to intercept, using a defense system designed to avoid hitting satellites—and do it in 6 weeks. Under normal conditions such an effort would require nearly a year of engineering conversion work, including substantial radar, weapons system, and missile design modifications, plus extensive crew training.

The government team made military history when it successfully shot down the satellite, obliterating its fuel tank into pieces no larger than a football, within a remarkably short time frame. A year after the feat was accomplished, the Laboratory received permission from its sponsors to tell the story for the first time. As the government’s Technical Direction Agent for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program, APL provided the end-to-end systems perspective necessary to increase the probability of a successful mission. The Laboratory’s expertise in simulation, design, and testing of the Aegis BMD system helped determine what modifications were required and how the mission could best be executed at sea.

Engineering Feats

APL’s team created unique and challenging models of the satellite’s radar cross-section and infrared signature for which little data were initially provided. The models helped staffers determine what the ship’s radar and the missile’s kinetic warhead would see when looking at the satellite. Validated against data eventually collected by sensors observing the satellite, the models were critical for predicting if and where they’d likely hit it. “The infrared modeling effort was perhaps one of the biggest engineering feats we accomplished,” said Joel Miller, APL’s Aegis BMD program manager. “Characterizing the satellite required some incredible detective work.”

A mission-design expert from APL’s Space Department kept track of the falling satellite’s irregular orbit, helping the team understand the spacecraft’s trajectory and its reentry date, which was crucial for determining the optimal time and location for firing the missile. The National Security Analysis Department also supplied expertise.

Another critical effort was to characterize the target and conduct performance analyses of various systems, which helped APL’s team choose the right time and location for the ship’s crews to fire the missile. Laboratory staff defined the ship’s radar search sector (the area the radar searched to acquire the satellite). They also predicted the missile’s flight path to help point sensors to observe the intercept, and predicted the intercept conditions to better understand and estimate the risk of debris to aircraft and spacecraft.

The modified SM-3 leaves its silo aboard the USS Lake Erie, headed toward the wayward satellite.

APL also converted firing-related data into a format that the weapon system could use to engage the satellite. The team relayed the data to a number of organizations participating in the engagement, including the Pacific Missile Range Facility that forwarded information directly to the ships at sea.

“When put to the task, the engineers, scientists, and sailors involved were able to take a system that wasn’t designed for this purpose, and over the course of just weeks, turn it around and conduct a successful intercept to help save lives,” said LCDR Andrew Bates, combat systems officer on the USS Lake Erie.

Critical Contributions

In its technical advisory role, APL regularly provides an independent evaluation of the Aegis BMD system’s performance factors and is involved in every phase of an exercise. Conrad Grant, head of the Air and Missile Defense Department, believes that APL was chosen to help lead the mission because of “the breadth of knowledge we have across all systems.”

Grant says the mission wouldn’t have been successful without the team’s dedication and expertise. “The mission’s success speaks to their flexibility, ingenuity, and drive to do what wasn’t supposed to be possible,” he says. “They pushed through the challenges in an incredibly short period of time”

In late 2008, Aegis BMD Program Director RADM Brad Hicks presented an Aegis BMD Excellence Award to APL’s 40-member team, recognizing their significant contributions to Operation Burnt Frost. The award cited the group’s efforts to help ensure that people around the world were safeguarded from exposure to the satellite’s highly toxic hydrazine fuel. Their professionalism, devotion to duty, dedication, technical expertise, and problem-solving prowess were recognized as instrumental in the satellite’s intercept.

The Laboratory also received the Precision Strike Association’s Gold Medal Award for its contributions to the operational success of the Aegis BMD precision strike system. The citation noted APL’s efforts to modify and refine an existing missile defense system that enabled, for the first time, a sea-based missile launch against a space system threat.

“The opportunity to do something like this is why we work here [at APL],” Miller said to his team during the award ceremony. “When the nation needed something really extraordinary, this team stepped up.”                       

APL’s 40-member team from the Air and Missile Defense, Space, and National Security Analysis departments.