The Mystery of the Blind Spy Satellite

A Navy missle shot it down when it started to fall from the sky. But the cause of the satellite's failure is still unknown.

Why did the US spy satellite fail? That is still a mystery, over two years after it happened, despite an exhaustive investigation involving government, industry, and academic experts.

First, the backstory: On February 20, 2008, a US Navy cruiser in the Pacific Ocean launched a three-stage SM-3 missile at a target in space. That target was a US spy satellite.

This eye in the sky had gone dead shortly after its launch in late 2006, and was slowly losing altitude. The official explanation for its destruction was that the US wanted to prevent the toxic contents of the spacecraft's fuel tank from hitting the ground.

Russia and China complained about the move, saying that the US just wanted to test its anti-missile technology. The shoot-down was hypocritical, Beijing added, since the US had complained vociferously when China used a newly developed anti-satellite missile to destroy a weather satellite in 2007.

Fast forward to today: The US government apparently still does not understand why its spy satellite did not work in the first place.

At a Congressional hearing last year, the head of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was asked for the record if this particular mystery had been solved. In a written response that has just been released by the House Armed Services Committee, he answered "no".

"After an exhaustive formal failure investigation, and three different independent review team investigations, the cause of the failure and what failed was not determined," said then-director of the NRO Scott Large.

The investigation took over ten months, and involved over 30 different organizations, said Mr. Large. He added that the satellite's electronic emissions indicated that "abrupt, multiple failures" occurred at the time the satellite ran into trouble.

The Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy first reported on the release of Large's comments.

The 5,000 pound satellite was about the size of a school bus. It was reportedly part of the NRO's Future Imagery Architecture, an effort to produce a fleet of relatively inexpensive satellites that has run into many problems.

Although the government hasn't figured out what went wrong, the NRO-led probe did "identify several opportunities to make improvements in mission assurance standards which have been addressed in the requirements for current and future satellite programs," Large told lawmakers in his written response.

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