Silent Space Is Being Monitored

Moscow ARMEYSKIY SBORNIK, Jun 96 No 6, (Signed to press 25 May 96) pp 48-51
by Lieutenant Colonel Boris Kononenko

In the journal's previous issue we told about one component of strategic deterrence assets, the ABM defense system. Today the discussion is about another of its components, the Outer Space Monitoring System (SKKP).

The idea of building the Outer Space Monitoring System in our country was formalized once and for all in the summer of 1963. At that time a team of scientists directed by A. Gorelik and N. Buslenko developed a conceptual design and two years later a preliminary design. It was extremely dangerous to put off solving this problem, since each year it was becoming more and more difficult to take "inventory" of outer space. Evidently the U.S. Defense Department also was guided by these considerations, when in the late 1950's and early 1960's the decision was made to establish SPADATS, a national system for monitoring outer space. It used radar and electro-optical equipment stationed on U.S. territory and at certain military bases outside the United States. The research of space outside the atmosphere proceeded not just along the path of its peaceful development; the need also was being considered for developing a space defense (PKO) system capable of engaging military targets. To this end the Outer Space Monitoring System was supposed to identify probable enemy spacecraft subject to destruction and issue precise target designations to the space defense system.

In 1967 Dnestr, the first specialized radiotechnical station intended for monitoring outer space, was tested in Kazakhstan. In the next year there were successful tests of a radar complex of eight Dnestr stations under the direction of Lieutenant General I. Pisarev, chief of staff of ABM Defense and Space Defense Troops. They were located in Kazakhstan and Siberia, forming a continuous "barrier" extending 5,000 km at altitudes to 300 km. The DSP-1Yu satellite was launched especially for aligning the stations and confirming the characteristics specified for them. In parallel with development of the system preliminary design, scientists in suburban Moscow were setting up the Outer Space Monitoring Center (TsKKP). Its first phase was placed on alert duty in 1970, by which time six U.S. military space systems already were permanently functioning: reconnaissance (detailed, ELINT and electro-optical), ballistic missile launch and nuclear explosion detection, navigational, meteorological, topogeodetic, and communications. Each one consisted of several spacecraft. In addition, a large number of our satellites also were in orbit. The monitoring mission consisted of reliably detecting, identifying and tracking active domestic and foreign satellites with high reliability.

In 1974 CINC National Air Defense Troops Colonel General P. Batitskiy submitted a proposal to the USSR Ministry of Defense on further upgrading the Outer Space Monitoring System. The task was assigned to V. Repin, chief designer of the missile attack warning system (SPRN). But the Outer Space Monitoring Center operated in a coordinate system distinct from the missile attack warning system and ABM defense. An additional program called Kosmos had to be developed urgently. The U.S. military also encountered similar difficulties. In short, the arms race was picking up speed and it took the USSR and United States years to curb it. As a result, the Paris Charter for a New Europe was adopted, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces and the ABM Treaty were ratified, and a Treaty on a Fifty-Percent Reduction of Strategic Arms was concluded. But space still hides many dangers created by man.

Colonel Aleksandr Voynov, operations duty officer of the Outer Space Monitoring System command post, escorted us into an enormous room with displays and multicolor screens. "From here we see practically all of moving space." The word "moving" somehow strikes the ear unusually, for in our understanding space is an immense expanse. Well, a hundred or more satellites intended for television and radio communications and for navigation and a manned station are flying in their orbits, but generally there is silence. "You know how many objects are in space?" Aleksandr Vasilyevich asked, and answered his own question: "Over 20,000 the size of a tennis ball and larger, of which around 8,000 are taken into account. There are other tens of millions of small fragments, many of which are in orbits or in the immediate proximity of orbits most often used for satellite flights. The collision of a manned craft even with the smallest object can lead to trouble. And foreign military spacecraft launched with specific goals are objects of our increased attention."

We were convinced of this when we looked through reports from abroad entered in a special log. Here are some of them.

"3 April 1990. Ofeq II satellite launched in Israel. Purpose is to collect intelligence. In the words of Acting Prime Minister Y. Shamir, this event is proof of our strength and capabilities.' Some mass media assessed the launch of the new Israeli satellite as a sign of escalation of the arms race in the Near East."

"1 August 1990. A rocket with electronic components for Star Wars' program to be tested in the air strayed from course and was destroyed on command from Earth. The command for destruction came from the White Sands, New Mexico Test Range."

"4 August 1990. A Delta II rocket was launched from the Cape Canaveral, Florida space launch facility. The main purpose is to insert a NAVSTAR system satellite into orbit under a Pentagon program."

"21 November 1990. According to an AP AGENCY report, the Atlantis space shuttle completed a flight under a secret Pentagon program. It inserted a secret cargo, presumably a spy satellite, into orbit."

Now it is understandable why patrollers of the celestial abyss try to know everything or almost everything about envoys from Earth. The Outer Space Monitoring Center starts a kind of personal file on each of them, in which the satellite's coordinates and capabilities are entered. In this way a catalogue is compiled by which it is possible to quickly determine the area where any object is located, if necessary, and then tracking complexes will give out its characteristics. With what accuracy? It was explained to us: "Imagine two tennis balls flying in space 10 cm from each other. Well now, we can say that there are specifically two balls and not one in orbit." But this is a figurative comparison. There also are examples of specific work attesting to the collective's professionalism.

Many at the Outer Space Monitoring Center remember 8 March 1989. Four new objects "appeared" in space. An analysis showed that these were parts of a satellite inserted into orbit by the crew of Atlantis. That all would mean nothing, but the satellite was no simple one--it was launched in support of the Pentagon for visual reconnaissance and ELINT and weighed 17 tonnes. Evidently the Americans had blown it up in connection with defects that had appeared. It was necessary to give a precise answer as to how dangerous the "fragments" were. According to calculations of Outer Space Monitoring Center specialists, the fragments were supposed to burn up in dense layers of the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean in 10-15 days, and that is what happened. They also tracked smaller ones until they, too, "died."

"At that time we had to be worried," relates Lieutenant Colonel Anatoliy Zayats, assistant operations duty officer, who began service here in 1979. "For in such cases it is impossible to err. Each of us knows what kind of satellites there can be..."

As a matter of fact, it is one thing when a communications satellite is inserted into orbit and another when it is a satellite, let us assume with a nuclear power plant. Thus, in December 1982 Kosmos-1402 broke into three parts due to failures. It is understandable that from the moment the booster rocket was launched, Object 1402 was, as they say, the focus of attention of Outer Space Monitoring System specialists. And so they needed only a few minutes for calculations: in two days the first part would enter dense layers of the atmosphere and burn up, and the very same fate awaited the second part, the instrumentation compartment, only its journey would last a month. But everything turned out to be more difficult with the nuclear power plant. It was continuously monitored for more than a year. Several days before the power plant entered the Earth's atmosphere, specialists produced data: it would not burn up completely, remnants would fall into the Atlantic Ocean, coordinates... Subsequent events confirmed the correctness of calculations.

A different situation took shape with Kosmos-1900, inserted into orbit in April 1988: for eight months the Outer Space Monitoring Center "kept an eye on" the satellite with the failed control system. Two days before the calculated time of cessation of the satellite's existence, coordinates were issued to its "own" department. The Control Center succeeded in turning on the propulsion unit and shifting the object into a long life orbit.

And here is a fresh example, so to speak. In early December 1995 the need arose to begin monitoring the final phase of flight of the remaining fragment of the Kosmos-398 satellite, a craft weighing around 2 tonnes launched back in 1971 and intended for delivering a cosmonaut to the Moon. Calculations showed that approximately five percent of the space "wanderer's" overall weight would not manage to burn up and would reach Earth. Monitoring was conducted within the framework of international cooperation: Russian Federation Ministry of Defense (Outer Space Monitoring System), NASA, and European, French and Japanese space agencies. Each department issued its own data. The difference in the fragment's time of impact reached more than 30 minutes, and this with the object's speed of 7.5 km/sec. Can you imagine that kind of "mistake" in distance? The object entered the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific on 10 December 1995, exactly at the time calculated by our specialists. The fragment train stretched for 500 km.

"The opinion formed that the Military Space Forces (VKS) observe and control all objects in space," Colonel Yuriy Rubtsov, chief of the Outer Space Tracking Center, shared his opinion. "As a matter of fact, this is not so. The Military Space Forces launch ballistic missiles, satellites and manned spacecraft from their own ranges and launch pads. They only see them, which means control them, as long as they are operating. If an emergency situation arises, they cannot get by without our data."

Thus, in 1985 communications with the Salyut-7 orbital station was interrupted. There was a high probability of losing the unique space laboratory, potential capabilities of which had not yet been fully used. Experienced cosmonauts were sent to save it. TASS announced: "In the course of the two-day automatic flight of the Soyuz T-13 craft several adjustments were made to the movement trajectory, as a result of which the craft approached the Salyut-7 station to within the given distance. Subsequent closing was performed by the crew manually, using gear for determining distance and an onboard computer complex." Few knew at that time that Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh found the silent station and then docked with it thanks only to data issued from here, from the Outer Space Monitoring Center.

Colonel General (Retired) Yuriy Votintsev, past commander of ABM and Space Defense Troops, recalls one episode confirming the USSR's striving for leadership in the area of monitoring outer space.

"In 1981 the United States carried out the first launch of the Shuttle spacecraft. This naturally drew the attention of the country's government and Ministry of Defense leadership. On being launched from the U.S. Air Force Western Space and Missile Center (Vandenberg), the Columbia and then the Challenger manned orbiter stages would pass over middle latitudes of the USSR from east to west, primarily in hours of daylight. This is 8 out of 14 revolutions per day, coinciding with our country's time zones. Orbital altitude was 300-400 km and there was total conformity with the sequence of passage of U.S. reconnaissance spacecraft.

"In those days I was preparing a detailed report for the Minister of Defense on means being used to track the Shuttle flight and on results of Outer Space Monitoring System operation. Then, some time in the autumn of 1983, Marshal of the Soviet Union D. Ustinov called me on the Kremlin phone [kremlevka]: I have before me your report on work on the Shuttle. Tell me, why hasn't the experimental laser complex of General Designer Nikolay Ustinov been used?' Dmitriy Fedorovich was excited over his son's creation. At that time a team of 300 specialists was performing modifications on the complex, and I reported this to the Minister of Defense. And the experiment took place on 10 October 1984, during the Challenger's 13th flight, when its orbital revolutions were passing in the vicinity of the National Air Defense Troops state range near Lake Balkhash, with the laser unit operating in a detection mode with minimum emissive power. The craft's orbital altitude at that time was 365 km and the slant range of acquisition and tracking was 400-800 km. A precise target designation was issued to the laser unit by General Designer Grigoriy Kisunko's Argun radar measurement complex.

"The Challenger crew later reported that as they were flying over the vicinity of Balkhash, communications on the craft suddenly shut down, malfunctions appeared in operation of gear, and the astronauts themselves did not feel quite well. The Americans began to investigate and soon realized that the crew had been subjected to some kind of artificial effect from our side and lodged an official protest with the USSR. Based on humane considerations, the laser unit as well as a portion of the range's radiotechnical complexes having a high energy potential subsequently were not employed to track the Shuttles."

I looked at those who were performing alert duty that day and tried to draw a psychological portrait of certain specialists. It did not work out. Although he is engaged in his specific job here in the Center, each serviceman works for the sake of a common goal--ensuring the monitoring of "silent" space. And Lieutenant Aleksandr Gudemchuk and Colonel Aleksandr Voynov and their comrades are troubled by problems of further increasing the reliability of acquisition and tracking of space objects and modernization of existing data processing, command and control and communications equipment. There are no indifferent people when it becomes known in the Tracking Center, for example, that SPADATS or NASA is using some kind of new technical equipment. There was and there remains rivalry in this area. The important thing is not to fall behind, because space monitoring systems will be needed even when there are no more wars in the world, since they also can operate for strictly "civilian" purposes. The concern of professionals is understandable: in order to secure their fellow citizens against various chance happenings--from those same falling fragments--one has to be knowledgeable of the latest technical achievements in the area of outer space development.

The space patrollers' post, located in a picturesque coniferous forest, was living with its own fully earthly problems. The kindergarten teacher had taken the kids out for a walk, there was brisk trade in the food store, and young mothers rolled children's strollers along the central avenue. Perhaps they were the wives of those officers who in these minutes were following the large succession of figures on the displays, directing their gazes at distances of outer space that are as yet by no means safe.