Satellites Play Key Role in Successful Anti-missile Test

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UPDATED FEB. 14, 1:02 EDT

WASHINGTON — Aided by data from a pair of experimental missile tracking satellites, a U.S. Navy cruiser launched an interceptor that destroyed a medium-range ballistic missile in a test over the Pacific Ocean Feb. 13, the U.S. Defense Department announced.

The test marked the first time data from the Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrator (STSS-D) satellites were used to calculate a firing solution for an interceptor, according to Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

The target missile launched from the Pacific Range Missile Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, and was then recognized and tracked by the MDA’s Northrop Grumman-built STSS-D satellites, the Pentagon said. Data from the satellites were then relayed to the USS Lake Erie, which is equipped with the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System that includes the Raytheon-built Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor.

The interceptor launched from the ship, about 800 kilometers off the coast, and destroyed the target with the force of impact.

In the press release, the Pentagon said the test opened the door for defense of larger areas.

“We’re obviously very excited about the results,” Mitch Stevison, Standard Missile-3 program director at Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., said in an interview.“This is a seminal moment in missile defense testing. It will change our way of thinking about missile defense.”

As the technology evolves, Stevison said, it will allow the Navy to cover a greater area with increased flexibility.

Stevison said he had “great confidence” the Navy could replicate the results for long-range missiles.

Raytheon’s Los Angeles-based Space and Airborne Systems Division built the main infrared tracking sensors on the STSS-D satellites.

“STSS-D’s unique vantage point in space allows the sensor payload to see the threat early in its trajectory and provide launch quality data sooner than nearly any other option,” Bill Hart, vice president of space systems at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, said in a prepared statement. “We can give our naval warfighters extra time to analyze and respond, by providing target data before the ship can track the threat. That’s a tremendous advantage.”

The STSS-D satellites were launched in January 2009 into what the MDA describes as a tandem low Earth orbit. By virtue of their ability to hand off data to one another, the satellites have demonstrated the ability to track target missiles from launch until atmospheric re-entry.

The MDA hopes to develop a constellation of low Earth orbiting satellites as a cuing tool for its ground-based radars and targeting systems, but the program has foundered for lack of funding.

In a prepared statement, David Bloodgood, STSS program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Los Angeles, said satellite-based tracking enhances missile defense capabilities with existing interceptors. “The STSS-D satellites demonstrated that future low Earth Orbit space capabilities can be a force multiplier for existing missile defense systems,” he said.

Since flight testing began in 2002, the Aegis system has successfully intercepted targets 24 times in 30 attempts, the Pentagon said.

“This test further expands our confidence in the SM-3’s ability to engage targets using remote, netted sensor targeting,” Wes Kremer, vice president of air and missile defense systems at Raytheon Missile Systems, said in a statement. “Launching on remote is important because it extends the engagement range of the missile, allowing ships with the SM-3 to expand the battlespace and eliminate threats sooner.”