New Details of Star Wars Experiment Released
Sep. 12, 1986
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Pentagon officials say the recent secret test of ''Star Wars'' satellites in space shows that the proposed anti-missile system is closer to reality than many people believe.
The experiment's success ''will lead, just inexorably, to the kinds of capability that we are all trying to move to in this research program as quickly as possible,'' Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, Star Wars director, said Thursday.
Added Lt. Col. Mike Rendine, the Air Force officer who served as the project manager, ''I personally believe from the data I've seen that our job's going to be a lot easier than we thought,''
Abrahamson said the main objective of last Friday's experiment had been to obtain data on what rocket plumes look like in space beyond the earth's atmosphere. That information is essential, he explained, for the development of sensors and guidance systems for small rockets that could be launched from ''garages in space'' to shoot down enemy missiles.
Without the pressure of the earth's atmosphere to keep a rocket plume streaming in a straight line from the bottom of a missile, the plume expands and even envelopes a missile flying through space, the general said. It thus becomes critical to develop sensors that can guide a rocket to impact against a missile body without being confused by the ball of hot exhaust gases, he said.
The broad outlines of the $150 million experiment, which began with the successful launch of a NASA Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., had been disclosed previously by officials speaking anonymously.
For roughly 2 1/2 hours after launch, the second and third stages of the Delta danced around each other in orbits about 138 miles above the earth's surface. In the process, they collected data on what solid-fuel as well as liquid-fuel boosters looked like - silhouetted against the backgrounds of both space and the Earth. One of them detected and tracked from a distance of 200 miles another rocket launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Abrahamson offered new details of the work Thursday and also released pictures of portions of the experiment, including footage of its spectacular end when the two Delta stages were sent into a deliberate collision.
Among Thursday's disclosures, as outlined by Abrahamson and Rendine:
-From start to finish, the equipment needed for the experiment was designed and fabricated within 14 months - almost matching Abrahamson's goal of one year.
-The second stage of the Delta was carrying ''the world's first space-based laser radar,'' Rendine said. The device was described as low-powered, incapable of use as a weapon, but providing extremely accurate range data. The laser radar was used to point and steer the other sensors on the second stage.
-More than 1 million lines of new computer software, or programming instructions, had to be written for the mission. The computer instructions worked flawlessly, Abrahamson said, offering a rebuttal to scientific critics who maintain it is impossible to develop a computerized control system for a large-scale Star Wars system that would function with confidence.
-The experiment was the most complex ever attempted by the United States from the standpoint of communications and coordination, Rendine said. It involved 38 radars on the earth's surface, six aircraft flying at high altitude in various parts of the world to receive information beamed down by the spacecraft, and 31 different satellite communication links tying the monitoring system together.
The Pentagon also said that a modified Patriot missile normally used to shoot down airplanes successfully intercepted and destroyed a tactical ballistic missile during an experiment Thursday at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Thursday's test marked the first time a Patriot missile had actually intercepted a tactical missile in flight. Earlier tests had successfully demonstrated a modified Patriot could detect and track an enemy missile.
The modified Patriot was fired against a Lance missile and intercepted it at an altitude of 26,000 feet and about eight miles down range, the Pentagon said.