back to article US satellite-shoot effort seeds conspiracy theory storm

Russia and China have expressed concern over US plans to fire interceptors at a malfunctioning American spy satellite in coming weeks before it plunges fully into the Earth's atmosphere. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Washington launched a crash effort to destroy the spacecraft early in the New Year, less than a fortnight after …


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  1. James Pickett
    Black Helicopters

    Definitely maybe

    "may not possess a formal anti-satellite capability"

    Which will be a definite "does not" if the thing misses. Have they really thought this through..?

  2. Marc Lawrence
    Black Helicopters

    target practice

    has anyone concered that it might have been designed to fail in order to give a chance to destroy with new "save the earth" technology?

  3. Dalek13
    Paris Hilton


    Oh come on!

    Is it me or are certain governments' statements now firmly crossing the line from 'heavy spin' do downright insulting? It's demonstrably absurd, as shown in this article and others, that the US military are not doing this for altruistic reasons so why insult our collective intelligence? I'd rather they didn't talk at all if that's what they're reduced to.

    Can't stand to lose it, don't put it up there without a backup plan.

    Paris 'cos this smells decidedly fishy!

  4. Anonymous Coward

    re: target practice

    "... designed to fail..."

    Or that it may have never been a functional sat in the first place? Simply sent up to be shot down.

    Gotta love any business where deception is the core of existence. You can make up anything and stand some chance of being right. :)

  5. Remy Redert

    Target Practise

    I do believe that angle has been thoroughly demolished several times over already. So while this might be a case of them happening to get a shot at testing <insert secret anti-sat tech here>, they most certainly did not intend to use that satelite for target practise.

    Indeed, the low-power radar gone wrong does seem to be the most likely, although one should never count out other possibilities like a piece of sub-detection kit.

  6. brym

    @ Marc

    My thoughts exactly. What we're possibly seeing here is clay pidgeon shooting, MDA-style, sponsored by the DoD. If it were some sort of super sub scanner, I don't think they'd blow it up after throwing so much money at it.

  7. bobbles31


    "Others dismiss the talk of sabre-rattling against enemy powers, saying that America is the only nation whose military is seriously dependent on satellites, and thus it makes no sense for the US to get involved in a space arms race. "

    Surely this gives them a greater motive than anyone else to be ahead in a space arms race?

    Its the tinfoil one with the antenna:

    biddy biddy biddy

  8. Jez Caudle
    Black Helicopters

    It's a trick

    During the cold war the Russians would regularly drive lorries from an embassy in the West back to Russia via Germany - the load being protected as diplomatic baggage. On one occasion the lorry in question was carrying a few thousand copies of a book by Khrushchev that nobody would read and had been hanging around the embassy basement for years.

    As the lorry passed through various nations borders the CIA got more and more frustrated as their expensive kit was unable to work out what was in the lorry - leading to all sorts of paranoid theories.

    Maybe this is what the USA government has done. Send a very cheap object into space and then make a big noise about shooting it down. "Well it must be important if they want to shoot it down!!"

    Not only do they frighten the "enemy" they also get a chance to test their ability to shoot something in space. Double-plus good!

    Of course in my day the Wilderness of Mirrors was much better than it is now ...

  9. Anonymous John

    effectively dead following its launch in December.

    December 2006, that is. It's taken until now for the orbit to decay, so the US has had a year to plan for this.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    James Bond

    Surely the coolest option would have been to fit one of those Boeing 474 lasers inside the shuttle, then chase after the satellite and zap it from space.

    Mine's the one with a built-in parachute please...

  11. Steve
    Thumb Down


    They've performed several SM-3 tests already, why would they do this one under some ridiculous pretence and at the cost of some diplomatic good will.

    If it's a sub tracker then they'd much rather blow it up than have the chinese or the russians recover bits of it.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pretty pathetic

    It's a pretty sorry "demonstration" if demonstration it is.

    "Hey watch this! We're going to shoot down something from an altitude at which it would have had no chance of staying in the sky anyway! Look out you commie spysats, we've nearly got an interceptor that can reach you!"


  13. Gerry Keen

    What is the drinking straw effect?

    at the risk of being made to feel a numpty, could someone, if not the esteemed author of the article, provide a one liner on this please.

    Coat - in anticipation

  14. Andrew Thomas

    It's not a satellite

    It's not a satellite. I shouldn't even be posting this here. But it's not a satellite.

    I received an email. A friend of mine works in Fylingdales. They picked up this object a couple of months ago when it entered the solar system. Even at that point they could tell it was headed for earth. They have NO IDEA what it is. It's not a meteor. Visual contact has not been made but it appears to have a regular geometric shape. Initial rumour at Fylingdales was some sort of "first contact" scenario, with quite some excitement. However, the mood has changed and they now view it as a threat - a serious enough threat to take it out before it arrives. The satellite story is a cover. It's frightening the hell out of my mate.

  15. daniel Bronze badge

    @Andrew Thomas

    Has any amateur astronomer seen this on a telescope?

  16. Omer Ozen

    Re:What is the drinking straw effect?

    It is simply put "refraction" ie, if you would put a straw in to a glass of water, the straw would look broken when looked from side of the glass etc.

    Light bends in and out of different density materials.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    @Gerry Keen

    I can only assume that the "drinking straw affect" referes to the (assumingly) limited field of view of optical satellites. It would be hard to put a fisheye lense on a bird 150 miles up and get much useful resolution on the ground. So, I would guess that optical spy satellites are equiped with one of more gaint, high magnification power telescopes, which can make out incredable detail, but only over a small area at a time.

    With synthetic appature radar, a sattelite could track a vast swatch of ocean, and automatically filter the return data for valid targets only, making the downlink bandwidth reasonable.

  18. Bob Gender

    This is not a drill!

    It's a satellite!

    Anyhoo, this is an excellent test of the SM-3 (Standard Missile 3! Love them complicated acronyms) coupled with the X-Band oil rig they have somewhere between dry dock in Hawaii and on station off Alaska, given that the closing velocities will be around 9.8Km/sec and the SM-3 has only ever intercepted at 6km or so.

    I'm not a fan of orbitally-delivered hydrazine slush puppies, or aliens from out space ZOMG!!1, but still this seems very excessive given the moral high ground they've been claiming over the ChiComms since their own little (unnanounced, higher and more dangerous) fireworks party.

    Skull 'n' Crossbones for the 0.007 people this hydrazine will kill on average.

  19. Olof P

    @ Andrew Thomas

    A couple of months to get from the edges of the solar system to near Earth?

    Let's assume they saw it no further out than Saturn, that's 10 AU or 1.5*10^12 m. If that'd take 100 days = 8.6*10^6 seconds to get from there to here, it'd have a speed of 1.73*10^5 m/s, or roughly 600 000 km/h. It'd move from the moon to here in 40 minutes. Do you really think they'd have any chance of hitting that?

  20. Anonymous John

    Re @Andrew Thomas

    I've seen an amateur picture of it on the web somewhere, but can't find it now. It's visible to the naked eye now according to

  21. Anonymous John

    @ Andrew Thomas

    "Do you really think they'd have any chance of hitting that?"

    I hope not. I for one, don't want us to piss off our new Galactic Overlord.

  22. Anonymous Coward


    The men in the space shuttle can paint a union flag on it .

    The yanks will hit it no prob.

  23. J


    "The probable solar-powered nature of the sat"

    See, even the military is going green! Petrol powered sats' days are numbered, I tells ya. And none of that sinister nukular stuff either, 10Q very much.

  24. brym

    @ Steve

    They can make much more of a public statement by deliberately not talking about the satellite's specs. That sort of move gets everyone's attention. Most immediately through "What's in the box?" Then swiftly to "Oh, they have this capability now" (read: shooting it down). And let's be honest here. A space-bound arms race has always been on the cards.

  25. heystoopid

    Oh No !

    Oh no , it is a sub orbital nuke platform which is a total no no as far as the usual current treaties allow for , imagine all that plutonium debris from the illegal warheads in the payload launch bay !(say didn't Arthur C Clarke warn us about those in 2001 , A Space Odyssey , written way back in 1968 ?)

    Conspiracy theory number 10,002 and counting !

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Look ...

    It is really very simple. It's a dummy satellite. It has a small self-destruct charge on board which can be detonated from Earth by radio.

    However, the yanks make a big noise about "shooting it down" and fool everyone into thinking its a real satellite.

    They go through a big show of launching a missile at it which of course will miss BUT they will at the same time detonate the on-board self-destruct — the net result will be that everyone THINKS they have a super-duper anti-ballistic system that can shoot down anything and they have scored a direct hit! Russia and China quaking in their boots! Result.

    If it weren't so obviously laughable it would be an insult to the intelligence.

    Mark my words, if they claim to hit it as it comes tumbling out of the sky you'll know I'm right.

  27. Charles Manning

    The real problem with amateur skywatchers

    Without the amateurs, the pentagon can shoot a very manly rockety thing into the air/space and unless it does a cartwheel in front of any onlookers they can feel all Uncle-Sammy and smugly proclaim that they had a successful hit, whether they did or not.

    However, it is hard to do that if it still shows up on and a raincoat can still see it from his back yard. Damn!

    I still don't understand why they don't just buzz over there with the shuttle since it actually up. If they could fit new lenses to Hubble, then surely it must be much easier to hacksaw off, or smash, the secret bits.

    Sidenote: Funny watching the pots and kettles... When China shot a satellite it was a BadThing according to the US because it would make space junk etc etc. Shoe is on the other foot now.

  28. lglethal Silver badge

    @ Brym

    "I don't think they'd blow it up after throwing so much money at it."

    That is an extremely naive (or possibly just plain stupid) comment.

    Given that the US DoD HAS spent millions on this satellite and millions more developing the tech inside it, i think they'd be MORE willing to blow it up rather then see that tech land in a foreign country. Even if there's only a 1 in a million chance of it surviving re-entry and landing (or crashing is perhaps a better word) would you want to risk that the brand spanking new technology you've spent millions developing would end up in foreign hands where they can reverse engineer it and be on the same technological standing as you for next to nothing.

  29. Daniel Silver badge

    Re: it's not a satellite

    Oh come on, that is sooooo ridiculous. I can't believe anybody would come up with that alien rubbish. It's clearly just...

    Hang on, that's actually quite a good theory. Would kinda make all the fuss worthwhile, which the other theories tend to be sorely lacking. Can anybody dig up any evidence to prove/disprove?

  30. Bob Gender


    Picture of it. I for one welcome our new chilli-shaped UFO overlords.

    On a serious note, pictures have consistently failed to show solar panels which indicates several possibilities; it has them and they failed to deploy, they're shielded to be invisible from Earth, it has a Plutonium-powered RTG power source or it uses a shitload of D-cells.

    The fact is that shooting this thing down poses a risk to the ISS of the order of 1000-1 (from NASA), much greater than the chances of fatalities on the ground, so someone's working from a risk/reward calculation we're not party to.

  31. Anonymous Coward

    @Andrew Thomas

    Sucker. Your mate winds you up and you not only fall for it hook, line, sinker, bait, bucket and half the bank, but you top it all by posting publicly on el Reg to show how completely and thoroughly pwned you are.

    Your mate gets my vote for troll of the week. Buy him a pint and tell him well done from me!

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    USA193 pictures

    Supposedly, these are a pictures of the satellite:

  33. Joe Cooper


    To me it kinda looks like it does have panels, but anyway, the panels aren't extended at launch, they have to extend once it's in space.

    Since the official statement is the power failed and the computer promptly died, it's entirely plausible that we're not seeing panels because they failed to deploy.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Story telling time, obviously

    "Hydrazine: Boiling point. 113.5° C (236.3° F). (Merck, 1983; CRC, 1994)"

    So the idea that some of it might be left at crash, is patently ridiculous when satellite has a orbit speed of 6km/s and it will be a white glowing ball of molten metal long before it hits the ground.

  35. Fluffykins Silver badge

    >click< >clack<


  36. lglethal Silver badge

    @ AC - Story Telling Time

    Ok, your physics sounds a bit rusty.

    What happens when a liquid reaches boiling point, it becomes....

    .... come on i know you can do this....


    Thats right, a gas. You have first choice of toy for playtime AC.

    Hydrazine Gas is a very nasty little gas which can be dangerous to people. I'm not saying i believe the theory that it's so deadly that they need to prevent it from reaching the ground by blowing it up in LEO, but just cause something is a liquid and gets heated up past its boiling point doesnt mean it disappears completely now does it?

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  38. Bob Gender

    @Charles Manning

    "Sidenote: Funny watching the pots and kettles... When China shot a satellite it was a BadThing according to the US because it would make space junk etc etc. Shoe is on the other foot now."

    Apples and bowling balls - China's shot put debris into orbits where it'll remain for centuries, and they did it unannounced. This is much, much lower and even those against it concede that all the modelling shows debris persisting for less than 30 days.

    Y'all should read this:

    Also thermal transfer is a strange thing (ever had baked alaska? What's the melting point of ice cream?) so it's entirely plausible the tank would make it down semi intact, but again the chances of this thing hitting populated dry ground are miniscule.

  39. Daniel Wilkie


    So I'm a little slow this morning... This priceless Satellite broke down over a year ago right? And Atlantis is up at the moment doing something to the ISS, correct? So if its that valuable, why didn't they send Atlantis up to recover the satellite instead, or at least plan some other contingency to recover it in the year they've had, you know, rather than blow it to bits... Because then they could work out whats wrong and stop it happening to the next one couldn't they?

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Space debris and sooty-faced kitchen utensils

    On the one hand, the US *is* justified in decrying the Chinese satellite shootdown. The Chinese target was in a stable orbit and any fragments generated will remain in orbit for a long time, whereas this target is in a rapidly decaying orbit, so the vast majority of the fragments will be deorbited (and, being smaller, burn up harmlessly in the outer reaches of the atmosphere) pretty sharpish, and even if they stay up there for a few months, pretty much anything at that altitude is doomed anyway unless it's on its way up. The only orbital danger will be any fragments given enough energy to attain higher orbits and possibly impinge on LEO birds.

    The other hand, though, makes the US a hypocrite anyway. they claim a moral stance against the militarisation of space, and this is yet another step in that direction. Their claim to be doiing it for humanitarian reasons has many holes in it already mentioned.

  41. brym

    @ lglethal

    I'll take extremely naive please! Regardless of whether or not it would be wise to blow up a space-based sub tracker through fears of the commies getting at it, this remains an incredibly simple case of a show of force. The US got embarrassed and is now throwing a paddy because China had the moxie to shoot down a satellite before them.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    It's entirely possible that the errant satellite is in an orbit that the Shuttle can't reach. If they had to design and build a recovery unit to be ferried up into orbit by the Shuttle which could then maneouvre to reach the satellite's orbit, you can bet it would take more than a year. And probably more than the cost of the satellite. Orbital mechanics is without pity and requires large amounts of energy.

    If such an orbital scooter were practicable, it'd be on the to-do list, and I've not heard anything about such being an addon for the ISS.

  43. teacake

    Re: It's not a satellite

    @Andrew Thomas - "I received an email. A friend of mine works in Fylingdales. They picked up this object a couple of months ago when it entered the solar system. "

    Sorry, was that Fylingdales or Bloomingdales?

  44. lglethal Silver badge

    @ Brym

    Apologies for the snappiness of my comments yesterday, Our coffee machine at work had broken down. It is now working fine again. Normal service shall now be resumed...

    PS I agree that the majority of this probably does come down to a lot of willy-waving on the part of the US but i can still see some definite reasons of keeping tech a secret in shooting it down...

    One final comment, people saying why cant the DoD get NASA to step across with the shuttle - remember NASA is civilian, the DoD is military. The DoD probably dont want even NASA to know the capabilities they have...

  45. Chris Gleim

    Totally avoidable

    I am a software engineer working on a student satellite project, and we've spent a lot of time developing contingency plans in case our satellite doesn't function as we planned. WHY, on a government satellite fueled by hazardous hydrazine fuel, would the government not plan a contingency for the current case, where they can't communicate with the satellite. They knew ahead of time that without thrusters, the satellite would crash to Earth. The obvious plan would be to expel the hazardous fuel in the case that the satellite can't communicate with the ground, so that when it fell to Earth, it would not be carrying it. I hate conspiracy theories, but this situation screams out to me as a purposeful excuse for testing space weapons.

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