Albuquerque Journal
Saturday, July 8, 2000

Satellite Weakness Studied
By John J. Lumpkin Journal Staff Writer
    Kirtland Air Force scientists are studying how vulnerable U.S. and foreign satellites are to lasers.
    The stated purpose of the effort, being performed at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland, is to "prevent inadvertent laser damage to these satellites" from military high-energy laser tests, said Capt. Brian Oelrich, chief of the Optical Analysis Group of the lab's Satellite Assessment Center, in a news release.
    But a lab spokesman acknowledged the research could be useful in cases where someone intentionally tried to burn a satellite as well.
    "The information is there," said spokesman Rich Garcia. "It's not something that has come up."
    The research involves testing — here on Earth — of the vulnerability of actual spacecraft components and materials to lasers, according to the news release.
    The results will go to U.S. Space Command, which acts as sort of an air-traffic control for satellites. During an experiment, Space Command would ensure that U.S. military organizations planning to fire a laser above the horizon wouldn't damage anything in orbit.
    John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based military watchdog organization, said the military's justification for the studies — to prevent accidental damage to satellites — is plausible.
    He acknowledged it also could have more direct military uses — learning how to damage enemy satellites as well as how to protect U.S. orbiters.
    Satellites have become vital to U.S. military operations. Global Positioning Systems guide missiles to their targets and give ground commanders an extremely accurate view of the positions of their forces. Spy satellites also provide automated reconnaissance and mapping for friendly forces.
    Some satellites could be damaged by medium-power lasers with energy levels in the kilowatts. Those devices are available at "any number of American research institutions," Pike said. Lasers at those power levels could burn out fragile optics on surveillance satellites.
    Megawatt-class military lasers can melt metal, he said.
    In 1997, the Army fired its big laser, known as MIRACL, at White Sands Missile Range at an old Air Force satellite orbiting 260 miles above the surface.
    The purpose of the test was to study U.S. satellite's vulnerability to lasers. The laser hit the satellite, but the test didn't provide any useful data and was deemed a failure, officials said.
    At the time, critics warned that the test could be read by other nations as the United States giving notice it intends to develop antisatellite weapons. That could push those countries to begin developing antisatellite lasers of their own.

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