13 September 1985: Major Wilbert D. Pearson, U.S. Air Force, flying McDonnell Douglas F-15A-17-MC, 76-0084, Celestial Eagle, launched an anti-satellite missile in a test, approximately 200 miles (322 kilometers) west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the central coast of California.
From level flight at Mach 1.22, Major Pearson pulled into a 3.8 G zoom to a 65° angle of climb. On reaching 38,100 feet (11,613 meters) and having slowed to 0.934 Mach, the LTV ASM-135 missile was automatically launched. At 1:42 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the 30 pound (13.6 kilogram) kinetic interceptor collided with the Solwind P78-1 satellite at an altitude of 345 miles (555 kilometers) and a closing speed of 15,000 miles per hour (21,140 kilometers per hour).
Solwind P78-1 was an Orbiting Solar Observatory satellite built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., of Broomfield, Colorado. The satellite had been launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 24 February 1979, and was in an almost circular orbit. P78-1 weighed 1,870 pounds (848 kilograms). Degraded batteries had made the satellite difficult to work and it was planned to terminate the mission when it was selected as the target for the ASAT.
The ASM-135 was a three-stage guided missile using a Boeing AGM-69 Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM) as its first stage and an LTV Aerospace Altair 3 rocket as the second stage. The third stage was the homing vehicle, which used an infrared seeker to intercept the targeted satellite. This was not an explosive warhead. The satellite was destroyed by the energy of the very high speed impact. The ASM-135 is 18 feet (5.48 meters) long, 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) in diameter and weighs 2,600 pounds (1,180 kilograms).
This incident was used as a plot device in Tom Clancy’s speculative World War III novel, Red Storm Rising.
22 years later, Celestial Eagle was assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing, Florida Air National Guard, at Homestead Air Reserve Base, and was flown by General Pearson’s son, Captain Todd Pearson of the 390th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard. F-15A-17-MC 76-0084 was placed in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, 19 August 2010.
© 2017, Bryan R. Swopesby