Department of Defense Background Briefing on the Satellite Intercept Attempt

Press Release From: Department of Defense
Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2008


SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: I think the easiest way for me to proceed is, I'll do two things for you and then we'll just go to your questions. But the first is to try to give you a sense of the information flow as we see how it'll unfold for you. And I'll give you my own best judgment of the quality of that information, because we're going to try to match time to events. So you know, I'm going to try to give you times when we will be available. The events may not always match up. So I'm -- just to give you a sense of that.

And then the second piece is to give you a little bit of the who, of who's doing what in this activity, so you got some sense of that, to help you build SA [situation awareness] and background on it.

On the first part of the kind of the sequence of information and how this is unfolding, one of the criteria that I laid out when we started in the last briefing was that we weren't going to do anything until we had the shuttle on the ground. So the shuttle's coming down here in the next few minutes, if it's not down now. It's down.

So we're now into the window, okay, the length of the window. There's some significant ambiguity at the back end of the window, based, as I said at the time, on how high the atmosphere is on any given day, because that then tells you when the satellite naturally would start to hit the atmosphere. So we want to catch it before it naturally hits the atmosphere, because when it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles and it's next to impossible to track.

So we're pretty comfortable right now that we'll have windows available to us through about the 29th or 30th. And then after that it will really start to become, let's say, more ambiguous, because we're trying to predict the weather out that far. So that's kind of the period, starting today and running basically out to about the 29th.

We'll make decisions each day as to whether we're going to proceed or not. Those decisions are a long list of criteria that during the day can change. Okay? So, you know, whether a range -- for instance, as you watch the shuttle, whether a range is fouled or unfouled, whether the ship is in exactly the right place, the right orientation, et cetera. But we'll walk through those criteria during the day, and so we expect to see the criteria change during the day several times before we get to the end.

What is different for us is that the window that we're talking about here is very precise. It's only a matter of seconds. Okay. So that window is short.

Q: What do you mean, seconds? Do you mean --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Seconds that that window is open that an attempt can be made, okay? And there will be --

Q: Each day --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Each day there will be one window. It will only exist for a matter of tens of seconds, and so you have to be at exactly the right place, exactly the right time, and all criteria have to line up exactly right. Okay, so this is a very, you know, precise -- unlike a tactical activity where any place at sea and we get a target and we're tracking it and as long as it's within range, we can -- this is more like a much more precise launch than you would normally tactically have. Okay? So we'll work our way through that all the way through the day.

Go back. Three ships. The first ship is Erie and it has two missiles. The reason it has two missiles is there's -- only going to fire one, but it gives it two opportunities so that if the ship itself has a problem or the missile in the tube has a problem, we've got an alternative.

So again, that's another criteria during the day, is do I have a good missile, do I have a good ship alignment, et cetera. The box is very small, so probably if Erie goes red in the last few minutes, Decatur will be close and it will be shadowing, but there's going to be a period when it just can't get into the box quick enough. So we're only looking for one opportunity per day, one shot.

The third ship is there to give us more of a -- let's call it a stereo-type picture of what's going on from a standpoint of tracking. Okay? It does not have missiles. That's Russell. So what we're going to give to you -- let me hit one other piece. We're looking for a day window because it allows us to align all of our sensors. And we're looking from what we would call several different ends or phenomenologies, so visual, infrared, radar, anything that we can get to see this thing, but for the most part we're looking to be in the daylight to do this best -- okay? -- for all of those reasons.

So that means it's going to be nighttime on the East Coast. Okay? And the windows over that span of days will pretty much traverse the whole night, so I can't really tell you, you know, exactly what time, but what I will tell you is that when we attempt to take the shot -- and I'll leave it at not when we take the shot -- when we attempt to take the shot, we will tell you within an hour afterwards what happened on that shot. Attempted it, nothing happened. Attempted it, it flew away and missed. Attempted it, it flew away and we think it hit it, with reasonable confidence, high confidence.

That's probably as much as we're going to know. We'll have a sense that we hit based on the reporting. That information probably takes about an hour to get back and get some confirmation from at least a couple of different sensors so we don't have a single anomaly and try to trace that and then we have you off chasing that information. But we're going to try -- within an hour, we'll get a press release out that will say we've attempted and here's what that attempt netted us to the best of our knowledge.

And then the intent is, as early as you're willing to get up the next morning, I'll do an availability and give you as much as we have, which should get us at least a few hours' worth of information to correlate sensors, pull data in from around the globe, and then provide you with whatever I can provide you at that point. It may be interesting to you -- (chuckling) -- it may not, I mean, from the standpoint of the value of information. I just want to be frank with you. I may be here, you know, and we'll just share jokes.

But the reality is that even if we hit -- recall back to the -- I hate to use this as an example, but the ASAT, trying to count the debris, the size of the debris, where the debris is located as it orbits the Earth, all of that that has not come down while there is parts of it coming down is a difficult -- in other words, you have got a trace that goes by. You wait for it to go by again. That's confirmation that a piece of debris has circled the Earth. Gee, was that the first piece, or was that -- I mean, this is a -- you know, how many pieces are there, counting them, having them de-orbit at the same time you're counting. So there's going to be a lot of ambiguity -- where's the tank in all of this, and trying to make sure that we can somehow pinpoint that. Again, it's another reason why daylight, where we're shooting, is important, because if we can get optical sensors, if we can get other things on it, we get a higher degree of confidence that we understand the key piece of hardware that we're after, which is that tank, that hydrazine tank.

So it is a bit of a challenge, and I'm just trying to set the conditions here that the exquisiteness of the knowledge will probably not be great, early. I would expect that over a period of about 12 hours, if there's a large object that is still up in orbit, we'll know, and we'll have a good sense of whether that object is something that we're -- was important to us from the standpoint of the hydrazine tank, or whether it's a large piece of unidentified debris off of the shot.

We'll also be able to start telling you that we're seeing reentry starting to occur. When we come in the first thing in the morning, we hope that we will start to see it, because remember, about 90 minutes around on an orbit -- that will start to decay, but about 90 minutes around. So we'll get a couple of passes. The first three, to us, are the critical ones, well over 50 percent of the debris we expect to come down in those first three passes. That's why we're setting it up the way we are. So we'll start to have a sense of, how much? And then how quickly is it coming down into the atmosphere and into the earth?

Q: What's 90 minutes?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Cycle around the earth for low Earth orbit is rough order of magnitude 90 minutes. So that's what we're looking at here as we try to pick it. So every 90 minutes, we're going to look at it based on any given sensor. And we'll work our way through that.

So I'll try to give you as much as I can, that next morning, about what we know. After that, we'll take a look at what we know in the morning, and get a sense of what we -- probably more interesting is, what don't we know, and then set an expectation with you all about when we can go back at the, what don't we know? You know, what makes sense? And I'm happy to do that on a schedule-driven rather than an information-driven basis, if that makes more sense to you.

The other piece that I wanted to just take a minute on: I think the Navy has done some discussion, a little bit from the Air Force and the other services. But let me give you a sense of the who for the large pieces of this operation -- who's kind of doing what.

All of the activities in space, all of the sensors, all of the tracking, all of our knowledge is being coordinated out at the joint space operations center at Vandenberg. That's a joint operation but headed by 14th Air Force out at Vandenberg. Okay.

The terrestrial sensors -- which are large radars, telescopes, anything else that we can bring in -- for the most part is coordinated by the joint integrated missile defense team, which is run by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. They are based out of, this office is based out of, Colorado Springs. And they manage all of the terrestrial sensors for us.

The command and control of all of this activity is run out of STRATCOM in Omaha, Nebraska. Happen to have a little familiarity with those guys. The launch side of this equation, the ships and the missile, are obviously Navy. And then because this is more like a test than an operation, we had to modify these missiles; we had to modify the system to do it. I'll put it into my own parlance of aircraft test.

When you have a production aircraft that you turn into a test asset, we used to call, we'd put orange wiring to them. But you put wires into them that are a distinctly different color, that instrument it, to give you much more information than a standard production asset would have. So it tells you and telemetries back everything that's happening for you.

So all of that work, on putting the instrumentation inside of the missile, was done by the Missile Defense Agency. Okay. They gave us, they brought us, all of the telemetry, the instrumentation, the things that will give us even more awareness of the performance and the activities going on.

And those are the key players here in the pieces of all of this event. I think those are the pieces I wanted to try to get to you, and give you a sense of. I'm happy now to kind of turn it over to you all, and we can do question-and-answer on this.


Q: How late in the day -- if today were the day, how late in the day would a decision be made to attempt the hit?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: We'll work all the way through the day, each day, and we'll put the people on a 12-hour shift, so we'll make sure that they have three or four hours after the window and at least, you know, the rest of the 12 hours in front. So we'll probably start midday working on the issue, and we'll -- and counting -- like in NASA, counting down, making sure that all of the criteria are either being met, have a reasonable expectation of being met, or something is severely off -- weather or something like that -- that it's just no point in going further; we may stop at any given point.

Q: Then you begin with the assumption that you can do it until something comes up that prevents you from doing it?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: We do. Now, there are external activities going on. You know, there is a political world out there that we try to take into account. But most of this is much more associated with technical -- do I have the weather? Are the -- are all of the criteria from the standpoint of the orbit known, and can they be transmitted? Are all of the sensors up and feeding? Is command and control and comms up? It steps down through a long checklist, multiple times. Most of that checklist is automated, so it immediately tells you when something like Lake Erie's comm went down or something like that happens. We'll get a notification right away.

Q: Who makes the call, that you'd have to call up -- that you wouldn't do it today or you would do it today, who makes that --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: To start, we basically are assuming each day is a valid opportunity, okay? But what we're looking for during the day, we could start very early with -- there's a typhoon, that it could -- not today. Okay? But more likely you're going to start working your way through until something convinces you that today shouldn't be the day.

And even if today is the day technically, there may be an operational reason or a political reason, a geopolitical -- whatever it is, that says: Gee, I think we better step back from this one today. How many opportunities do I have in front of me is always a consideration. As to whether or not you want to take any risk in this, risk could be: Gee, maybe the weather is kind of on the margin, and I'm still willing to, because I've only got one day left, or something like that.

But at the front end, we're going to take almost no risk. I mean, we're going to -- everything has to be green.

Q: To follow up to that, then will you, if you do have one of these occurrences where you have a typhoon and it's very apparent you're not going to go ahead, then will you let us know that, so we don't staff into the wee hours of the night?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: We should be able to. There's no typhoons out there right now.

Q: Yeah.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: But today is a weather day.

Q: But if you do call it off --

Q: What do you mean, today is --

(Cross talk.)

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That today is a weather day, you know.

Q: That means that bad weather is --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That means that the weather is just not going to -- we don't anticipate the weather being good enough today. Now, that's where it sits right now. It's on the margin, you know. And so we'll come back to you.

But we'll try to do this, but I don't want to mislead you. These things will change during the day multiple times. I don't expect to see typhoons out there, but -- based on the forecast that we have, but sea heights and winds and all of those things will play, and they change during the day. So we'll continue to watch. It has not been enough for us to say no, no reason to, yet. But we're watching weather today.


Q: This is a very practical question for us back here. You say this is going to be a daylight operation.


Q: Right. What time here does daylight end there?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: I think they're generally -- you're asking a Marine to do math in public here. (Laughs, laughter). But I think that they're generally about seven hours behind us, six, seven hours behind us.

Q: But you've been asking reporters to do rocket science, so -- (laughter.)

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: (Laughs.) Fair trade. But I think that's about the trade that you have out there in the Pacific.


Q: Well -- excuse me. So what would be the approximate time here?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Well, again -- (interrupted by laughter).

Q: It's a window.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: So if it gets dark here at six-ish --

Q: How late do we have to stay here tonight? (Laughter.)

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: It's going to change every day. And it's a good spread -- I mean, because we're looking for the best. The window is small, as I said, but we're looking for the best orientation of the satellite so that the following three revolutions go over the water as much as possible or over unpopulated areas as much as possible, that we have the right lighting conditions for all of the sensors that are optical, so that we have the best chance of knowing what we did or didn't do. So all of those things will go into the play. And so it does move quite a bit each day. And so me telling you, even today, what it is -- we're still working that out, making sure that we've got that nailed down. It goes through the day as we determine that.

I'm sorry -- a question?

Q: About -- just as a practical question, who is going to put out the news within the hour of the test, DOD? (Off mike.)


Q: And you had said that there's -- the window is only once a day for tens of seconds. Can you elaborate? Considering it orbits the earth every ninety minutes, why only one shot a day?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Because we want it to be in the precise place so that the next three orbits will be over the water as much as possible.


Q: Is it currently going 90 minutes?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: You know, if you were the rocket scientist, I mean, I -- we'd be talking seconds, but rough order of magnitude to stay in orbit at low Earth orbit, at the bottom, is about a 90-minute cycle, with perigee and -- sorry -- with the high point of that orbit and the low point of that orbit, you know, being reasonably symmetrical.


Q: Is there any reason that we can't know the window today? Is that --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: I'm not sure that we -- I mean, we've got a sense of it right now, but we'll -- it moves -- I'm not trying to hide something from you; it moves enough that we would be chasing ourselves.

Q: But one of our space geeks/experts at NBC said that it only moves like 15 minutes per day. Is that not your -- you think it's more that?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: If -- here's a way to look at it. If what were moving is -- if you had a globe, and we're trucking across the globe doing this, okay, what we're trying to do is get nailed down right here. But what we need for accuracy is down to seconds, okay? Yes, the variance each day as it moves across is 15, 20 minutes, but do we want to catch it in this window, do we want to catch it in this window -- we have more than one window we can look at in a given day.

Okay. Once we pick the window, which is part of the work that we do in the countdown, where do we have stability? There's a set of data that's called ephemeris data. But it is the precise data that is gathered from all of the sensors as it rotates the Earth. We're trying to use that data to pick those windows during the day. If you miss a sensor and you -- you know, you want to go back and collect -- so we're looking for the best data that we can get, lead it with the putting the ship in the right place, so that we get the best angles and then we get the best following three rotations. So yes, in a day, this point will probably only move 10 or 15 minutes until tomorrow, but we have more than one point that we can choose from.

Okay. Pat, then -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Q: Apart from the MDA instrumentation, could you help us understand what kinds of modifications had to be made to the ships and the --

STAFF: Before we get to that, let's see if there's any more questions about how information will flow, about that --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: I'll come back.

STAFF: -- and we'll come back for an operational issue if we have time.

Q: If you can elaborate on what you said earlier about today's weather, what is wrong with today's weather?


Q: Waves.


Q: (Off mike) -- especially for the ship, as opposed to anything else?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Mostly, yeah. Yeah. Sea state.

I'm sorry, there was one over here?

Q: Who is the person who makes the call, today's go? And how long before the actual shot, before that seconds-long window, do you have to make that decision?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Command and control, as we refer to it, is always a challenge here. In the chain there are a series of no votes -- my words -- but people who can say stop because my criteria, weather, is not being met. There are very few yes votes, and the question is, where do you have that yes vote? The commander of U.S. Strategic Command will give the secretary of Defense a recommendation, and then the secretary of Defense will look at that recommendation, make a judgment based on it. He will have more than one opportunity during the day to do that because we keep re-looking at it through the day. So there are multiple opportunities. We'll have a point of no return, so to speak, that's down in the minutes area, and it will be based on whatever it is that has kept us potentially holding, if it were weather or something like that. But --

Q: Minutes as in 60 minutes, or minutes as in five minutes?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: It could go down. It just depends. It depends on what criteria it is that's holding us back, how serious that criteria is and what the expectation of maybe being able to clear that criteria is. If we're swapping missiles, if we're just worried about wave height -- not just, but each one of them will be different. But we'll have the opportunity. But we'll get down to a point of no return, where we turn it over to the ship to execute.

Q: So on press, to be clear, you will not be putting out a notification that we've launched the missile and then an hour later a press release, or will it be just a press release an hour after the event?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That's correct.

Q: So we could all be sitting here and you could have launched and we wouldn't know, necessarily, until the press release comes out.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That's correct.

Q: Is there any way for us who are in the building to pick -- you know, pepper you guys on background, "Did it launch or did it not launch?" type of thing?


Q: Well, it's a practical question.

Q: There's a danger -- you know, we know that you'll try and keep this as clean as possible, but if it starts to filter out that there has been a shot and we're still having to wait an hour before we can even confirm there's been a shot, is there no way that you can just tell us first that you've taken a shot and that's all you can tell us, but at least that fact is out there?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Let me go back and work it. Okay.

Q: The Navy said yesterday that on some of their missile tests there's a video camera in the warhead. Will there be one on this?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That's in the instrumentation of the SM-3 when we try to do test shots. Let me go find out, but generally there are two cameras. There's one on the booster -- for a test -- there's one on the booster, and you've seen these. NASA uses the same system, one that's looking down behind, so to speak, so you can see it departing, and one that's looking up. We wouldn't normally put that on a shot like this, but let me go see what they've done with this one.

Q: Can you explain exactly on what basis Secretary Gates would make a decision? I mean, that is to say, sort of why he's involved in the process? Once all your technical experts, you know, make a determination, what's left for him to decide?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: He takes the advice of the commander at Strategic Command, who has pulled all of -- it's STRATCOM's job to pull all of the pieces together from all these agencies and all of the people who have an equity in the technical side of this thing as well as any other considerations that we're making. He makes that recommendation to the secretary.

The secretary has retained it, because normally in a tactical scenario to launch, say, an SM-3 in an operational scenario, that would be delegated down to the ship's captain. Here, because this is so unique, because we've done modifications, because it has got substantial attention and because there are issues here with making sure that, okay, are there any parameters that we're close on/not close on, we're going to bring that decision back. And because we have -- even though the shot window is small, the number of days are reasonably large, there's enough time to make a judgment at that level and so we're going to do it for this particular issue. So it is unusual to take a tactical system and bring it all the way back to the secretary of Defense for a cleared/not cleared type of scenario.

Q: So he's basically going to decide whether whatever amount of risk -- because you said you're going to take very little today but maybe a little more later on. So the secretary will look at the amount of risk that General Chilton brings to him and decide whether he's comfortable with it?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: That's correct. That's correct.

STAFF: We've got two minutes, so if there's any more process questions --

Q: Regarding air traffic, how are you going to proceed and notify? Do you have anybody to notify or --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah. It goes out. Two notifications go out worldwide, notification to mariners and notification to aviators. And the aviation risk right now as we have calculated -- and we've got pretty good experience on this -- is sufficiently low that FAA/the international agency, ICAO, have elected already that they're probably not going to reroute air because they don't expect that to be a threat. And then the notice to mariners also goes out, which I think was reported yesterday. We opened that window -- or that box up yesterday.

Q: Will your briefing the next morning be on background or on the record?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: (Inaudible) -- record.

Q: If you make a decision today during the course of today to not do it today, will you tell us that when you make that decision?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Let me go check and see what their thought process is. If we know early that it's hard no-go, then we'll try to not keep you up all night.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Will you release video?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: We're looking at that to try to see, but we're trying to get imagery for you.

Q: Are the NOTAMs issued yesterday valid, for west of Hawaii?

Q: Notice to Airmen.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, I know what a NOTAM is - if they released a NOTAM it's valid.

Q: They were posted by the DOD, but the FAA says they were only meant to be drafts and they are not valid.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Oh, okay, I hadn't heard that. But generally we try to get them out at least 24 hours prior. It's the ships that have the hardest time because once they start on a path or they're in a box it takes them a while to clear.

Q: (Off mike.)

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: They'll have a sunset clause associated with them that gives you the window, and if we cancel early, we remove them.

STAFF: Okay, we are out of time. I want to thank you for coming today, and I hope that this has been helpful. And thanks to our senior Defense official, if you need to attribute, or senior military official, excuse me.

// end //

More news releases and status reports or top stories.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.

SpaceRef Newsletter