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Spacecraft Family

By © Charles P. Vick 2007-8 All Rights Reserved

04-12-07 -- 01-31-08


The opinions and evaluations stated here in are only the author’s and cannot be construed to reflect those of any Government agency, company, institute or association. It is based on public information, circumstantial evidence, Vendor documents, informed speculation, and declassified U.S. intelligence community documents, official US government documents and histories, oral histories, interviews and reverse engineering analysis. As with all data regarding the intelligence space programs of the US intelligence community, this analysis is subject to revision--and represents a work in progress.


The only remaining FIA spacecraft is the radar imaging single dish vehicle that apparently suffered a major failure with the launch of USA-193/NROL-21 launched December 14, 2006 . It is designed to be the replacement for the operational Lacrosse/Vega/Onyx spacecraft that are believed to carry two elongated radar imaging dishes. The FIA, RADSAT is designed to be deployed in a constellation of spacecraft providing near real time constant coverage of points of interest.

It would appear that the first FIA, radar satellite (RADSAT) is the first of the two systems to appear in flight testing and the only remaining original FIA satellite. According to Ted Molczan it first appeared on the launch manifest of VAFB as early as May 2004 when the RADSAT was still under Boeings control as it apparently still is with at least two major subcontractors under their direction. Ted Molczan further points out along with Allen Thomson that since as The New York Times reports (7) that “The planned strength of the radar signal initially exceeded the limits of the device used to produce it” was apparently resolved by lowering the “Frozen Orbit” altitude to accommodate a stronger beam on the points of interest. This is confirmed by the vacuum-tube traveling wave guide tube assembly problem encountered in the program.

First Flight Test of the new Experimental Synthetic Aperture Radar Imaging Spacecraft?

The USA-193/NRO, L-21 launched December 14, 2006 payload required a much more extensive search of the industry literature to understand its probable origins and design heritage. The one issue that is most eye opening is that it is not based on the Boeing, Hughes divisions 601 satellite body series now out of production. It is probably based on a Lockheed satellite produced frame that an uncanny resemblance to that which has been used by Orbital Sciences Corporation for smaller communications satellite that apparently Boeing adapted to their RADSAT design . In spite of the circumstantial evidence Orbital Science Corporation apparently had nothing to do with the RADSAT spacecraft design. Having been flown on a Boeing McDonnell Douglas Delta-II, 7920-2 under a 108 inch inside diameter shroud indicates it was a very tight fit spacecraft. The compactness of the cube shaped spacecraft body with its solar arrays folded against two opposite sides of the spacecraft has actually surprised this analyst. It is apparent that it was in fact a test satellite for FIA apparently not to be repeated since the Delta-II is out of production. At this point the actual FIA, RADSAT operational remote sensing spacecraft is expected to be flown under one of the smaller Delta-4 Shrouds.

Boeing was the lead coordination design organization for the FIA, RADSAT while, while Lockheed Martin or TRW provided the solar arrays with Boeing-Hughes division providing the radiators associated with those solar arrays and Lockheed providing a smaller but more powerful variant of the lacrosse mesh radar dish designed probably provided by Harris Corp, to circumvent jamming. Only two organizations bid the FIA, phase-C RADSAT imaging radar satellite contract they being Loral and Orbital Sciences Corporation but also presumable Lockheed Martin the prime contractor for the lacrosse RADSAT that lost the initial FIA, RECSAT, RADSAT contract. Boeing in fact won the RADSAT contract so they must have adapted the Lockheed Martin design framing approach. It is now believe that the newer electronic technologies have allowed the spacecraft to be designed for two solar arrays with five or more fold out segments on each side of the spacecraft with one radiator also added to each array. It is felt that Boeing did the design and systems integration construction for the RADSAT that played to the industry strengths through sub contracting in order to get and retain this spacecraft program. This has allowed this presentation conceptual study design of the apparent radar imaging spacecraft configuration. The design is in part based on the analysis of the imagery of the USA-193 spacecraft payload as seen in low resolution ground based imagery of the failed satellite. Certainly USA-193 settled into the “frozen” orbit of all the remote sensing radar satellites of the various configurations flown according to Ted Molczan .

Ted Molczan further stated, Fri 10/12/2007 10:49 PM “I am confident that its mission involved some sort of remote sensing of the Earth, because it is in what is known as a frozen orbit. A frozen orbit is one in which the argument of perigee and eccentricity remain nearly constant, resulting in a nearly constant altitude V’s. latitude, which is advantageous for analysis of Earth observation data.

Here is a partial of list of satellites that have employed frozen orbits:

Lacrosse SAR
GEOS-3 radar altimeter
Seasat 1 SAR, radar altimeter
GEOSAT radar altimeter
Spot Earth resources imaging
UARS various Earth sensors
Topex/Poeidon radar altimeter
ERS SAR, radar altimeter
RadarSat SAR
GEOSAT FO radar altimeter
Landsat 7 Earth resources imaging
Terra spectroradiometers, radiometer
EO-1 Earth resources imaging
Jason 1 radar altimeter
Envisat SAR, radar altimeter, radiometers
Aqua radiometers, microwave sounder
Icesat altimeter, radiometer
ALOS SAR, radiometer

As you can see, all are remote sensing at one or more wavelength, some imaging, some not.

It is highly unlikely for a frozen orbit to occur by chance, so I believe USA 193 must be Earth observation…...”

“On Jan 22, (2008) I posted updated orbital elements from our tracking to SeeSat-L. I included an estimate that it will decay from orbit in late March:

USA 193 5.0 2.5 0.0 4.3 v

1 29651U 06057A 08022.26928906 .00106843 00000-0 21608-3 0 00

2 29651 58.4898 160.3690 0008009 84.4119 275.7892 15.98955224 06

Arc 2008 Jan 20.22 - 22.28, WRMS residuals = 0.016 deg

Using Alan Pickup's Satevo program, I estimate 06057A will decay about 2008 Mar 24, +/- 2 weeks.

Due to the vagaries of atmospheric drag, the precise date of decay remains uncertain. NROL-21 was launched on a Delta 2 rocket into a 351 x 367 km orbit, inclined at 58.5 deg. As of our most recent observations, on Jan 22, it had decayed to 271 X 282 km. It is decaying at the rate of about 0.7 km per day, which will accelerate as it continues to spiral in. From VAFB, a Delta 2, 7290 could place about 3300 kg (= 7300 lbs) into a 90 deg orbit, at the initial altitude of USA 193. USA 193 went to a 58.5 deg orbit, but due to some sort of range constraint, had to launch into a polar azimuth, then dogleg to the correct azimuth, which probably somewhat reduced the available payload. I cannot guess the penalty, but certainly the maximum payload was well under 3300 kg / 7300 lbs.”

Ted Molczan

A mere “Useless Ice Cub” approximately 74’’ x 54’’ x 75 “+ 46” + = 121 “or so without solar arrays packed tightly to two opposite sides. Adding the solar arrays makes it about 74” x 74” x 121” at less than 3,300 kg/7,300 lbs is really small indeed by any standard compared to any compact SUV. Smaller than or about the size of a SUV at a probable 7,000 lbs or about 3,175 kg total compact mass. Looking at the standard legacy spacecraft shows two opposite sides with solar arrays shell skin with the other two sides covered by black thermal blanket material where the solar arrays are deployed from. Then the spacecraft has its bottom for the down link dishes, antennas, horns and the top with the propulsion area. While the solar arrays and antenna come loose during reentry they will tear at the structural fabric of the spacecraft as they separate. It should really come apart in several sections fast on reentry with the fuel containers possibly bursting under heat and pressure in part tearing it apart before reaching 100,000 feet. That leaves very little concentrated mass to survive to impact but that is clearly the worry those high pressure heavy propellant tanks have so often survived which will be spewing highly toxic Hydrazine propellant from the ruptured lines and tanks. The velocity should be considerable less at impact remembering other spacecraft impact and the rate of mass and energy loss. That is still a hazard to humanity 58.5 degrees north or south of the equator.

The FIA experimental radar imaging satellite must have been separated very early from the original common bus design approach and essentially taken over by the Boeing Hughes-Lockheed-Martin design integration group. Boeing, Hughes was apparently the primary design systems integration organization for the RADSAT under Boeing’s leadership from the onset of the program proposals. The experimental test spacecraft had an apparent catastrophic failure due to software not previously observed errors with the solar array and radar dish apparently not deployed soon after orbital insertion. The rectangular bus box does appear to be covered with solar arrays and the spacecraft does appear to be darker than would be expected except for the down link dish rack and un-deployed hardware. At least they did not deploy properly thus the reports of the general power failure. That is at least my present impression based on the interpretation of the low resolution spacecraft imagery. To a degree I am speculating here based on low resolution ground based imagery and what we can gather from its appearance. I would have to say once I saw this imagery the common FIA bus idea vanished from my present thinking. The profound impact of Boeing, Lockheed Martin on the design of the RADSAT (radar imaging spacecraft) can not be understated.

Recent Reuters, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, Aviation Week & Space Technology and New York Times, articles have revealed considerably more details of what caused the USA-193 experimental satellite total loss failure seven seconds after being turned on after a successful orbital insertion. It was due to its “flight Safe-hold software” and associated “subsystems components processors” that were automatically triggered by an on board anomaly or anomalies. The spacecraft was left with an inability to communicate with ground controllers. Subsequent attempts to communications with the spacecraft by ground controllers repeatedly failed to successfully reboot its on-board computer. This has created a potential serious impact on the systems technology assessment along with its follow on economic budget impact to the US military Sbirs and Radar satellite programs. The common programming and associated subsystems is apparently designed to be used on many spacecraft and the full extent of that impact on other spacecraft has not bend defined at this writing. Apparently Lockheed Martin was the lead subcontractor for this software and its subsystems which are now undergoing examination for revisions to remedy the issues identified for both the RADSAT and Sbirs programs. This may also force redesign of some subsystems in addition to the software revisions. It was described by the Under Secretary of the Air Force space programs as a “useless ice cub.” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7)


1. Andrea Shalal-Esa, Lockheed, Boeing built failing spy satellite, sources say, Reuters, January 29, 2007 , p. 1 & 2. [ January 11, 2007 first reported by Reuters]

2. Andrea Shalal-Esa, Exclusive – U. S. NRO spy satellite may be total loss- sources March 7, 2007 , p. 1 & 2.

3. Andrea Shalal-Esa , U. S. spy satellite declared loss, to drop from orbit, Reuters, Aug. 3, 2007 , P. 1 & 2.

4. Amy Butler, Classified Satellite Failure Led To Latest SBIRS Delay, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, October 5, 2007, p. 1.

5. More Sbirs Trouble, (Edited by Dave Bond), Aviation Week & Space Technology October 8, 2007, Vol. 167, No. 14, October 8, 2007 p. 27.

6. Sbirs Slip, (Edited by Frank Morring. Jr.), Aviation Week & Space Technology, Vol. 167, No. 19, November 12, 2007 , P. 6.

7. Philip Taubman, In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids, The New York Times, November 11, 2007 , p. 1, 20, & 21.

8. , Future Imagery Architecture [FIA]


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