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Science News

U.S. spy satellite declared loss, to drop from orbit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Reconnaissance Office has deemed an experimental U.S. spy satellite a total loss and will allow it to slowly drop from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, two defense officials told Reuters this week.

A Delta II rocket for United Launch Alliance lifts off at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Callifornia, December 14, 2006. The National Reconnaissance Office has deemed an experimental U.S. spy satellite a total loss and will allow it to slowly drop from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, two defense officials told Reuters this week. REUTERS/Thom Baur/United Launch Alliance/Handout

The classified L-21, built by Lockheed Martin Corp at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, was launched on December 14 but has been out of touch since reaching its low-earth orbit, put by satellite watchers at about 220 miles above the earth.

It will now gradually fall out of orbit over the coming decades, said the officials, who asked not to be named. At some later date, it will burn up as it enters the earth’s atmosphere, posing no danger to people below, they said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon will likely now have to test aspects of new technologies that were on the L-21 by piggybacking them onto other satellites over the next four to five years, the officials said.

For instance, the military could put the new sensors aboard TacSat 3, the latest in a series of smaller satellites, when it launches later this year.

The NRO could still try to build a new spacecraft to test the technology, but it would take several years to get the funding for such a satellite and build it, one official said.

The two officials declined to identify what exactly the experimental Lockheed satellite was meant to test, but said its failure was troubling, given that other countries were rapidly plowing ahead with development and launch of new capabilities, especially in the area of synthetic aperture radars.

Synthetic aperture radars offer high-resolution and can pierce darkness and thick clouds to identify targets, even peering below the surface of the ground or peeking into foliage that might obstruct the view of photo-based sensors.

One official said Germany in June launched TerraSAR-X, a sophisticated new satellite armed with a synthetic aperture radar that analysts say marks the start of a new level of quality in the mapping of the earth.

Canada is also working on this technology.

The NRO, which designs, builds and operates reconnaissance satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence communities, declined to comment, as did Lockheed.

RUNAWAY COSTS, DELAYS

The failure of the L-21 comes amid a spate of issues with other NRO and military satellites, and as the Pentagon tries to rein in runaway costs and schedule delays on space programs.

NRO Director Donald Kerr, nominated to be principal deputy director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he recommended ending two multibillion-dollar classified intelligence programs because they could not be successfully completed.

Kerr said one of the contractors had been put on “a watch list,” and could only bid on new work if granted a waiver.

He did not name the programs or companies involved, but said he told the contractor on the list it could be removed only when it showed that it could build hardware that worked.

Analysts and one official familiar with the issue said Kerr was referring to a major revamp of the Future Imagery Architecture program, initially run by Boeing Co, and a Lockheed satellite program dubbed “Misty.” The official said the company on the watchlist was Boeing.

Boeing declined to comment.

Separately, two U.S. military satellites used to monitor ship movements failed to reach their correct orbit when they were launched several months ago aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Officials are now trying to “nudge” the satellites into the correct orbit by using small amounts of the fuel onboard, but the effort is still ongoing, one defense official said.

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