Image: NFIRE
General Dynamics
Technicians work on the Near Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE, during the satellite's construction. NFIRE is due for launch early Monday atop a Minotaur rocket.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 4/24/2007 9:39:07 AM ET 2007-04-24T13:39:07

The U.S. military on Tuesday launched a small missile-watching satellite after years of quiet preparation — and years of alarming reports from critics about its purpose.

The NFIRE spacecraft was sent into orbit atop a commercial Minotaur booster before dawn Tuesday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia's Wallops Island.

To the Defense Department, which owns and will operate the satellite, NFIRE stands for "Near Field Infrared Experiment." That encapsulates the mission's goal of observing the rocket plumes of military missiles to be launched past it later this year. NFIRE will map and characterize the brightness of the rocket plumes to help the Pentagon design future guidance systems for anti-missile weapons now under consideration.

But to its critics, NFIRE could well be spelled “Fire!” — as in, “launch the weapon!” The project has been labeled an irrevocable step toward the weaponization of outer space. The spacecraft's launch could light a new fire under the debate.

Just last month, Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency, gave the official view of the NFIRE mission: “We plan to develop space-based sensors to provide a persistent identification and global tracking capability,” he testified to a congressional committee. These are tests of passive tracking satellites, precursors of operational vehicles that could watch for attacks on the United States and its allies. Obering and other program officials insist that nothing on this project relates to interception of such missiles or any other objects.

Two demonstration satellites are to be launched late this year to perform acquisition, tracking and handover tests with live missiles. Prior to those flights, Obering said the NFIRE satellite would “collect high-resolution infrared phenomenology data from boosting targets.”

The explanation is a plausible one, because rocket plumes exist in their true form only in the vacuum of space, and sensors to track them often use wavelengths that are normally blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. To field-test tracking sensors, you have to do it in space — and both Russian and American satellites (and manned spacecraft, such as Russia's Mir space station and the space shuttle) have been experimenting with better and better technology for decades.

Opposing orbits
Critics of U.S. military space activities have an entirely different view. In her latest book, "War in the Heavens," peace activist Helen Caldicott writes: "NFIRE would track and kill missiles … [but] initial NFIRE tests will not include the kill vehicle." Furthermore, she adds, "Obviously if NFIRE and other such systems are deployed, they will provoke countermeasures by powers such as China and Russia" since "it is only a short step from hitting a missile in outer space to hitting an orbiting satellite."

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 The fuss over the "kill vehicle" peaked three years ago when an earlier version of the spacecraft was in final launch preparation. That object was indeed a component of a ground-launched anti-missile warhead, modified to carry more cameras and fewer maneuvering thrusters.

Caldicott’s book cited a Moscow newspaper for a quotation attributed to an anonymous Pentagon official upset with the NFIRE program. “We’re crossing the Rubicon into space weaponization,” the official was said to have remarked.

Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, insisted to MSNBC.com that the current NFIRE spacecraft is focused entirely on passive plume sensor tests.

"It’s just an experimental use of sensors to get data on rocket plumes," he said by telephone. “We can use that data to design the guidance system of the kinetic energy interceptor,” a high-acceleration anti-missile system that could be based on land or on ships near the border of a potential missile-launching state.

Lehner said the $10 million appropriation requested by Obering was for analysis and design. "There's no plan for prototypes or for construction," he said. Instead, the money would fund comparisons of the mathematical models and previous sensor tests with the actual results from the NFIRE observations.

“We will get data so that in the future we can make decisions from an informed position,” he said. No decisions about future deployments have been made, he insisted, nor would they be made for years to come. For now, this NFIRE mission is the only one planned, he said.

But that’s not the way that NFIRE and similar U.S. programs are being described around the world.

The Russian press has been highly vocal about sounding the alarm, with a classic example published on the newspaper Izvestia's front page on March 29.

"The United States is going to put an anti-missile shield in space – this was announced yesterday by General Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency," correspondent Dmitri Litovkin declared. The reason? “In his opinion, that is the only way of protecting America”.

Obering’s March 27 testimony before the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is readily available (PDF file) and his actual words can be checked. They do not reflect what Litovkin claims they said.

After describing the orbiting sensor tests planned for this year, Obering elaborated on why an operational network of space-based sensors might be valuable. He urged lawmakers to consider deploying such a passive observation network — a network that would have been forbidden by the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that the current Bush administration withdrew from five years ago. The ABM treaty forbade any space-based components of an anti-missile system, whether or not they were actually related to weapons.

Confusing debate with decision
Obering did talk about actual interceptors in orbit, a concept that has been argued over for decades. In terms of pure practicality, a seemingly insurmountable operational obstacle has been the need for hundreds of fast-moving platforms to cover any possible location anywhere on Earth from which a missile might suddenly rise.

"I believe the performance of the [Ballistic Missile Defense] system could be greatly enhanced by an integrated space-based layer," Obering nevertheless continued, touching on the weapons-in-space issue. “Deployment of such a system must be preceded by significant, national-level debate.” To that end, Obering requested a budget of $10 million for 2008 “to begin concept analysis and preparation for small-scale experiments”.

That is hardly the description of an already-approved imminent deployment of a fleet of battle stations. Nor was it accurately reflected by the reporter for the Novosti news agency, who filed a story on the hearings with the headline, “U.S. missile defense chief argues for missile shield in space.” Novosti claimed that Obering said some elements of the missile defense system should be deployed in space, but what he really said was that the United States needed to debate that issue before making a decision years in the future.

Recognizing the realities
Russian press coverage is not universally garbled. A well-informed retired military officer named Vladimir Dvorkin uses original sources and direct interviews to correctly describe the over-wrought hyping of “U.S. space threats” by Kremlin officials. Dvorkin is one of the rare commentators in Russia recognizing the realities of the situation.

Fortunately, spaceflight is a technological exercise where physics is the ultimate judge of reality. The main fear about NFIRE seems centered on its potential to lead to orbiting satellite-killers, not merely missile-killers. None of these critics seems to have worked through the fundamental engineering of the NFIRE-type sensor system, which depends on tracking an extremely hot rocket plume trailing a powerful intercontinental missile.

Orbiting satellites, on the other hand, are in orbit, following a fixed course through space. Because they don’t emit enormous rocket plumes, they could not possibly be observed — much less attacked — by any weapons systems based on NFIRE-type sensors. They have no “fire,” hence nothing to fear from NFIRE.

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