A Delta rocket is quietly being readied for blastoff Friday to carry a “Star Wars” satellite payload into orbit in the first major American launch attempt since an identical Delta failed in May, sources said today.
The 116-foot rocket is scheduled to take off at an unannounced hour Friday, according to space industry sources who spoke on condition they not be identified. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will not discuss any aspects of the classified mission.
The launching comes in a climate of crisis for the American space program, which has suffered three major failures this year beginning with the destruction of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28. An unmanned Air Force Titan 34D rocket blew up seconds after blastoff April 18 and a Delta was destroyed May 3.
Most Disastrous Year
In addition, two research rockets have been destroyed, and a Minuteman missile was blown up after a launch malfunction for a total of six rocket failures in the nation’s most disastrous year in space in two decades.
The $42-million Delta’s hush-hush payload is thought to be a dual satellite experiment to test new space tracking systems, a key element in the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program.
John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington said he is “80% confident” that the two satellites are part of the “vector sum experiment,” which could include the destruction of one satellite by the other to demonstrate progress in the “Star Wars” research program.
“One has an infrared telescope on it, some guidance and maneuvering,” Pike said. “The other satellite is either a different version of the same thing or it’s a target vehicle. It’s probably a target vehicle.
Most Ambitious Experiment
“At a minimum, the first satellite is going to track the target satellite and fly formation with it or something. If you want to go down to about the 45% confidence level, the maneuvering satellite is going to hit the target satellite.”
The launching marks the most ambitious “Star Wars” experiment ever placed on a rocket.
Security has been tight, and little information has been available despite the importance of the mission. But if the mission is successful, sources said Strategic Defense Initiative officials plan to publicly discuss the payload and purpose of the experiment.
The only other known SDI experiment conducted in orbit came in June, 1985.