How do satellites shoot down?

How do satellites shoot down?
How do satellites shoot down?

The armed forces of developed countries are actively using spacecraft for various purposes. With the help of satellites in orbit, navigation, communications, reconnaissance, etc. are carried out. As a result, spacecraft become a priority target for the enemy. Disabling at least part of the space group can have the most serious impact on the military potential of the enemy. Anti-satellite weapons have been and are being developed in different countries, and there have already been some successes. However, all known systems of this kind have only a limited potential and are not capable of attacking all objects in orbits.

From the point of view of methods of destruction and technology, a spacecraft (SC) in orbit is not an easy target. Most satellites move on a predictable trajectory, which makes aiming weapons somewhat easier. At the same time, the orbits are located at altitudes of at least several hundred kilometers, and this imposes special requirements on the design and characteristics of anti-satellite weapons. As a result, interception and destruction of a spacecraft turns out to be a very difficult task, the solution of which can be carried out in different ways.


An obvious way to combat satellites is to use special anti-aircraft weapons with increased characteristics, capable of reaching targets even in orbits. This idea was one of the first, and soon real results were obtained. However, complexes of this kind in the past have not received much distribution due to their complexity and high cost.

How do satellites shoot down?
How do satellites shoot down?

Debris distribution of the FY-1C satellite shot down by a Chinese missile. NASA drawing

However, by now the situation has changed, and new land or naval missile systems capable of attacking satellites in orbits have entered service. So, in January 2007, the Chinese military conducted the first successful tests of their anti-satellite complex. The interceptor missile successfully climbed to an altitude of about 865 km and hit the emergency weather satellite FY-1C on a collision course. News of these tests, as well as a large amount of satellite debris in orbit, became a cause for serious concern for the foreign military.

In February 2008, similar tests were carried out by the United States, but this time it was about the missile of the ship complex. Missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG-70), while in the Pacific Ocean, launched an SM-3 interceptor missile. The missile's target was the USA-193 emergency reconnaissance satellite. The meeting of the interceptor missile and the target took place at an altitude of 245 km. The satellite was broken, and its fragments soon burned up in the dense layers of the atmosphere. These tests confirmed the possibility of deploying anti-satellite missiles not only on land, but also on ships. In addition, they testified to the high potential of the SM-3 rocket, which was originally intended to work on aerodynamic and ballistic targets.

According to various sources, ground-based anti-satellite missiles are also being created in our country. There is an assumption that the altitude of the latest S-400 air defense missile systems is not limited to the official 30 km, and thanks to this, the complex can hit spacecraft in orbit. It is also assumed that specialized anti-satellite missiles will be part of the promising S-500 complex.


SM-3 rocket launch from cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG-70) launcher, 2013Photo by US Navy

Currently, the Russian industry is modernizing the A-235 missile defense complex. As part of a larger program, a promising interceptor missile with the code "Nudol" is being developed. In the foreign press, the version according to which the Nudol missile system is precisely a means of combating satellites enjoys a certain popularity. At the same time, the characteristics and capabilities of the complex remain unknown, and Russian officials do not comment on foreign versions in any way.


Ground-based anti-satellite missiles face a serious problem in the form of significant target altitude. They need powerful motors, which complicates their design. Back in the late fifties, almost immediately after the first launch of an artificial Earth satellite, the idea of placing interceptor missiles on a carrier aircraft appeared. The latter was supposed to raise the rocket to a certain height and provide its initial acceleration, which reduced the requirements for the power plant of the weapon itself.

The first experiments of this kind were carried out by the United States in the late fifties. During that period, strategic aeroballistic missiles were being developed; some samples of this kind, as it turned out, could be used not only against ground targets, but also to combat spacecraft. As part of the flight design tests of the Martin WS-199B Bold Orion and Lockheed WS-199C High Virgo missiles, test launches were carried out against targets in orbit. However, these projects did not produce the desired results and were closed.

In the future, the United States tried several times to create new air-launched anti-satellite missiles, but did not succeed in this. All new products had certain drawbacks that did not allow them to be put into service. At the moment, as far as is known, the American army does not have such weapons, and the industry is not developing new projects.


Destruction of USA-193 satellite by SM-3 missile. Photo by US Navy

The most successful American development in the field of anti-satellite missiles for aircraft was the Vought ASM-135 ASAT product, the carrier of which was a modified F-15. In September 1985, the only combat training launch of this rocket at an orbital target took place, which confirmed its capabilities. The carrier fighter, making a vertical ascent, dropped the rocket at an altitude of about 24.4 km. The product successfully aimed at the designated target with the help of the seeker and hit it. The meeting of the missile and the target took place at an altitude of 555 km. Despite the obvious successes and great potential, the project was closed in 1988.

In the first half of the eighties, our country launched its own project of an anti-satellite complex with an air-launched interceptor missile. Complex 30P6 "Contact" included a number of products, and the main one was the 79M6 rocket. It was proposed to use it together with a carrier aircraft of the MiG-31D type. According to various sources, the Contact rocket could hit spacecraft in orbits with an altitude of at least 120-150 km. As far as is known, in its original form, the 30P6 complex was not brought into operation. In the future, however, a project appeared that provided for the restructuring of the 79M6 interceptor missile into a launch vehicle for small payloads.

At the end of September, new photos of the MiG-31 aircraft with an unknown product on the external sling appeared in the public domain. The dimensions and shape of such a load became the reason for the emergence of a version about the development of a new air-launched anti-satellite missile. However, so far these are only assumptions and there are no data on the unknown object.

As far as we know, the topic of anti-satellite missiles for aircraft has been studied at one level or another in different countries. At the same time, it came to real products and launches only in our country and the United States. Other states did not build or test such weapons. Their anti-satellite programs are based on different concepts.


Possible appearance of the Nudol missile launcher. Figure

Satellite versus satellite

A variety of means can be used to destroy an object in orbit, including a special orbiting spacecraft. Ideas of this kind were worked out in different countries, and in the Soviet Union they were even considered a priority, which led to the most interesting consequences. At the same time, the development of interceptor satellites, apparently, continues to this day.

The development of a Soviet project with the uncomplicated name "Fighter of satellites" or IS started in the early sixties. Its goal was to create a spacecraft capable of intercepting and destroying other objects in different orbits. The development of a complex that includes various means, including a special satellite with special capabilities, took a lot of time, but still led to the desired results. In the late seventies, the IS combat satellite with all additional equipment entered service. The operation of this complex continued until 1993.

Since the beginning of the sixties, experimental satellites of the Polet series have been launched using the R-7A launch vehicle in a two-stage configuration. The spacecraft had shunting engines and a shrapnel warhead. Over time, the appearance of the complex changed, but its main features remained the same. In the mid-seventies, test launches took place, as a result of which the IS complex entered service.

Foreign countries also worked on the idea of an interceptor satellite, but it was viewed in a different context. Thus, within the framework of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the American industry developed a project for a small-sized satellite Briliant Pebbles. It provided for the placement in orbit of several thousand small satellites with their own guidance systems. When receiving an order to attack, such a spacecraft had to approach the target and collide with it. A satellite with a mass of 14-15 kg with a rendezvous speed of 10-15 km / s is guaranteed to destroy various objects.


Aeroballistic missile WS-199 Bold Orion and its carrier. Photo

However, the goal of the Briliant Pebbles project was to create a promising missile defense system. With the help of such satellites, it was planned to destroy warheads or entire stages of ballistic missiles of a potential enemy. In the future, the interceptor satellites could be adapted to intercept the spacecraft, but it never came to that. The project was closed along with the entire SDI program.

In recent years, the topic of interceptor satellites has become relevant again. Over the course of several years, the Russian military sent a number of satellites of unknown purpose into orbit. Observing them, foreign experts noted unexpected maneuvers and orbit changes. For example, in June last year the spacecraft "Kosmos-2519" was launched. Exactly two months after launch, a smaller spacecraft detached itself from this satellite and performed a series of maneuvers. It was argued that it was the so-called. an inspector satellite capable of studying the state of other equipment in orbit.

Similar events in near-earth space have caused an interesting reaction from foreign experts and the media. In numerous publications it was noted that the possibility of free maneuvering and changing the orbit can be used not only for studying the state of the spacecraft. A satellite with such functions is also capable of becoming an interceptor and destroying designated objects in one way or another. For obvious reasons, Russian officials did not comment on such versions.

In 2013, China sent three unclear satellites into space at once. According to the available data, one of them carried a mechanical arm. During the flight, this device changed its trajectory, deviating from the original by almost 150 km. In doing so, he became close to another companion. After the publication of information about such maneuvers, there were concerns about the possible use of a satellite with a manipulator in the role of an interceptor.

Defeat without contact

In the recent past, it became known about the existence of a promising project of anti-satellite weapons capable of neutralizing a target without direct contact with it. We are talking about a specialized electronic warfare system designed to suppress radio communication channels and, possibly, defeat the onboard electronics of the target apparatus.


Fighter MiG-31 and rocket 79M6. Photo

According to the available data, the development of a new Russian electronic warfare complex with the Tirada-2 code started back in 2001. Last year, it was reported that state tests of the Tirada-2S system were carried out. In August this year, at the Army-2018 forum, a contract was signed for the supply of Tirada-2.3 serial products. At the same time, the exact data on the composition, architecture, tasks and other features of the complex have not yet been announced.

Earlier it was stated that the complexes of the Tirada line of various modifications are intended to suppress radio communication channels used by spacecraft. The impossibility of exchanging data or transmitting signals of various kinds does not allow the satellite to perform its functions. Thus, the spacecraft remains in orbit and remains operational, but loses the ability to solve the assigned tasks. As a result, the enemy cannot use navigation, communications and other systems built using satellites.

Systems of the future

Modern armies of developed countries make the most active use of space groupings with vehicles for various purposes. With the help of satellites, reconnaissance, communications, navigation, etc. are carried out. For the foreseeable future, spacecraft will remain the most important element of defense, and there is reason to believe that their importance for armies will grow. As a result, the armed forces also need the means to combat enemy spacecraft. The development of such systems has been going on since the middle of the last century, and has managed to give some results in a number of areas. However, due to their particular complexity, anti-satellite systems have not yet become widespread.

Yet the need for anti-satellite weapons is clear. Despite the complexity of such systems, the leading countries continue to develop them, and the most successful models even go into service. Modern anti-satellite weapons, in general, cope with the assigned tasks, although they have limited potential in terms of height and accuracy. But its further development should lead to the emergence of new samples with special characteristics and capabilities. Time will tell which variants of anti-satellite weapons will be developed in the near future and will reach exploitation.

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