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Satellite Destruction Using Google Earth And Orbitron

Researchers use off-the-shelf software as part of an experiment to demonstrate the vulnerability of critical space infrastructure.

Thomas Claburn

June 22, 2007

3 Min Read

Say you want to shoot down a satellite.

After a brief stop by Wikipedia to brush up on China's destruction of its Feng Yun 1C weather satellite in January, you download Sebastian Stoff's Orbitron satellite tracking software and Google Earth, to make your attack easier to visualize.

You pick a target. Why not Feng Yun 1D, since the Chinese don't appear to care much for their weather satellites?

Google Satellite


(click image for larger view)

You plot the satellite's position ten minutes hence using your computer and you feed the predicted latitude, longitude, and altitude to your hidden launch pad control center. Using literature that's been available since the 1960s, you -- or your launch control staff, if you've got the requisite payroll of a Bond villain or an international terrorist cabal -- compute the amount of fuel needed to get your one-stage rocket and its warhead to the satellite's future position.

You plot a "solution" or flight plan that takes into account the liftoff phase, the controlled orbit insertion phase, and the ballistic fall onto the target. You double check your math, because you've got a small chunk of change invested in this scheme.

Lacking the standard red launch button, you settle for clicking the "Destroy Satellite" dialog box (you had to code this yourself).

Your computer dutifully asks for confirmation: "Are you sure you want to Destroy Satellite? This operation cannot be undone."

This, more or less, is what Adrian Gheorghe, Professor of Systems Engineering at Old Dominion University Norfolk, Virginia, and Dan Vamanu, a Senior Researcher at the National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Bucharest, Romania, did as an experiment to demonstrate the vulnerability of critical space infrastructure.

Writing in a paper titled "Risk and vulnerability games. The anti-satellite weaponry (ASAT)," Gheorghe and Vamanu conclude, "In theory, the ASAT ballistic hit looks quite a doable stunt. ...One may safely assume that any country in possession of intermediate range vectors may mount an ASAT adventure..."

"It's an awareness paper," said Gheorghe in a phone interview, who aims to make it clear that satellites aren't merely vulnerable to nations with demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities but to a far broader group.

This is not to say that the kid next door is likely to try such a thing tomorrow and prompt a retaliatory missile strike (make sure to be out on an errand when that happens). The barrier to entry in the anti-satellite club isn't yet that low.

But ongoing efforts by software billionaires to commercialize space -- Elon Musk's Space Explorations Technology Corp. and Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin, for example -- demonstrate that rocket technology and know-how are becoming increasingly accessible. And the software is already here.

Shooting down a satellite, is, as Gheorghe and Vamanu put it, "in theory, piece-of-cake!"

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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