A Delta Star missile-hunting satellite thundered into orbit Friday and quickly spotted a target as it began a key months-long test to develop a split-second “Star Wars” defense against nuclear rockets.
The payload’s sensors passed their first trial within two hours after launching when they successfully tracked the thrusting second stage of the Delta booster rocket after separation and during its fiery destruction in the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.
“We watched that burn with the sensors; we not only got the second stage burning but we also got the re-entry and breakup,” said Air Force Col. Michael Rendine, program manager for the Strategic Defense Initiative Office.
Over the next several months, the $140-million satellite is to aim its sensors at a series of ground-based missile and space launches to help perfect the technology for detecting and destroying enemy boosters within minutes after they leave their launching pads.
Researchers will seek to gather rocket exhaust data against the background of the North Pole region, an area through which attacking Soviet missiles would travel.
Air Force officials said that the Delta Star experiment is part of research being done for the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars,” to develop a space-based missile defense system.
The three-ton satellite carries a laser radar, seven video imaging cameras and an infrared imager. A Laser Illumination Detection System is designed to spot ground-based laser firings, a capability that would permit future satellites to take evasive action.
Using a 48-jet thruster aiming system, Delta Star has the capability to maneuver into position to spot the blazing plume of missiles and rockets to be launched over the next several months from the space center; Wallops Island, Va.; White Sands, N. M.; Poker Flats, Alaska; Barking Sands, Hawaii, and, possibly, from Soviet launching sites.
Identifying Exhaust Signature
In addition to quickly sighting a rocket plume, Delta Star sensors are expected to gather information to help distinguish the exhaust signature from such backgrounds as land, ocean, horizon, space, atmospheric effects and the bright aurora borealis in the North Pole region.
The polar background information is critical because Soviet missiles would travel through that region in any attack on the United States.
The launching was the third in a series. In a 1986 test, two satellites tracked each other and one destroyed the other by crashing into it.