Hopkins lab prepares to track for military Laurel facility's biggest satellite will test systems for future missile defense

April 18, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The biggest satellite ever built by the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel is poised for launch tomorrow from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Dubbed the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX), the $325 million satellite is designed to test detection systems for a future ballistic missile defense system capable of spotting enemy missiles in "mid-course," as they coast in space, with engines off, en route to their targets.

The data it collects during its five-year mission will also be released to civilian scientists for a variety of environmental studies, including investigations of ozone depletion, air pollution, space contamination and global atmospheric changes.

The spacecraft is 17 feet tall, 10 feet wide and weighs 6,200 pounds.

"Our heritage has been small spacecraft, built fairly quickly," said APL spokesman Luther Young. "This is something new for the lab." APL's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft launched in February weighed just 1,800 pounds.

MSX is packed with five instruments, two built at APL, and 11 different optical sensors. It is scheduled for liftoff atop a McDonnell Douglas Delta II rocket at 8: 26 a.m. tomorrow.

If all goes well, it will head south and climb to an orbit 560 miles high, carrying it close to both the Earth's poles.

Vandenberg is the site of all U.S. launches to polar orbits because it is situated on land north of Santa Barbara that juts west into the Pacific. From there, rockets can be aimed safely toward the south over the ocean.

Once in orbit, the MSX mission will be managed from an APL control room in Laurel.

APL's work on MSX began in 1988. It suffered a number of budget cutbacks and instrument problems that delayed the satellite's launch, originally set for November 1994. More launch delays at Vandenberg have held up the liftoff since March.

APL built the spacecraft for the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). The Pentagon agency is the scaled-down successor to the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative organization -- the so-called "star wars" office assigned to design a system to detect and destroy Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

With the Cold War ended, the BMDO's focus is to design a system to protect U.S. and allied troops against short-range "theater" missiles.

Max R. Peterson, MSX program manager at APL, said the spacecraft's mission is to gather a broad spectrum of data on what the Earth, the atmosphere and space look like to the sorts of detectors that might one day be searching for enemy missiles in flight.

"If they know what the background is that they might be viewing an incoming target against, they can try various different detection [programs] to filter the backgrounds out" and reveal the missile, he said.

Lt. Col. Major Bruce Guilmain, project manager for the BMDO, said clouds, auroras, atmospheric heating and stars might all look like hot missiles to some detectors. Careful measurements of such things by MSX will fill a "data gap" and help engineers design systems that can discriminate between false targets and real ones.

As many as 12 real rockets will be launched during MSX's life span -- some from Wallops Island, Va. -- so that scientists can see what they look like to the satellite's detectors.

The target-detection data will remain classified and will not be shared with civilian researchers, Dr. Peterson said.

But virtually everything else the satellite's detectors see will be released to scientists studying environmental issues. "It essentially comes at no additional cost to the government except for the analysis of the information being gathered," he said.

NASA and other organizations are also discussing ways to reprogram the MSX instruments, when possible, to conduct exclusively civilian experiments.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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