News

U.S. Lab Eyes Missile Detection Work with Russia

By Jeremy Singer
Space News
July 16, 2007

More than three years after the Pentagon canceled the joint development of a pair of experimental missile warning satellites with Russia, the two countries have yet to settle on a new avenue of missile defense cooperation.

While the highest profile possibility on the table today is Russia’s offer to host a shared ground-based early warning radar facility in Azerbaijan, a U.S. research laboratory is seeking several million dollars from the Pentagon for a joint development effort with Russia to develop a system that would calibrate the infrared sensors aboard missile warning satellites.

In addition to its value in the missile defense arena and the role it would play in bolstering relations between the two countries, the calibration system also could prove valuable to satellites used to monitor global climate change, according to Tom Humphreys, director of the international division of the Space Dynamics Laboratory, a research foundation at Utah State University.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory led the U.S. development end of the Russian-American Observation Satellite (Ramos) program. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) canceled the Ramos program in 2004 after deciding that the $550 million needed to finish the work would be better spent elsewhere, according to a document that accompanied the MDA’s 2005 budget request.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory, which currently is working jointly with Russia on experiments such as plant growth in space, has floated several options for future collaborative efforts on missile defense in the years since the Ramos cancellation, Humphreys said. Once option, which the lab suggest shortly after the Ramos cancellation, entailed joint work on ground and aerial experiments with new sensor technology that could have led to the launch of a single satellite, but MDA decided that the Cooperative Research on Warning For Nation Security project’s $90 million price tag was too high, he said.

The lab then suggested a program called AirLab that featured joint work on aerial demonstrations of missile warning sensors that ultimately could have been migrated to space that would have cost about $35 million to $45 million, but MDA rejected that effort as well, he said.

Now the lab is hoping that MDA will provide $2 million to $5 million for work on a calibration system that could be incorporated on missile warning satellites to detect degradation in infrared sensor performance, Humphreys said. This same technology also could be applied to satellites that monitor the planet for climate change in order to distinguish between possible changes in temperature on Earth and inaccuracy of measurements due to sensor degradation, he said.

The lab has invested some of its money to date to advance the calibration technology, Humphreys said. Russia has offered to take an experimental version of the sensor to its side of the International Space Station in 2009 along with a plant growth experiment it is working on with the Space Dynamics Laboratory. If the 2009 trip to the space station is manifested, the lab would need to finish the prototype calibration system at some point in 2008, he said.

Humphreys said he hopes the Russian proposal to host an early warning radar in Azerbaijan will help open a dialog that ultimately leads to further cooperative work like the calibration proposal.

Even if the United States and Russia are able to come to an agreement regarding the shared use of the early warning radar, further measures likely will be necessary to reduce tensions between the two countries over missile defense issues, according to U.S. missile defense experts.

Riki Ellison president and found of the Alexandria, Va.-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said further measures like cooperative projects may be necessary to deal with Russian concerns that the Pentagon’s plans to place interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic are aimed at countering Russian missiles.

While having an early warning radar sensor in Azerbaijan could help to spot the launch of missiles from countries like Iran, the radar in the Czech Republic would play an important role in providing tracking and discrimination data to interceptor systems, Ellison said.