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35 Years Ago, a U.S. F-15 Blasted an Orbiting Satellite to Smithereens

35 Years Ago, a U.S. F-15 Blasted an Orbiting Satellite to Smithereens

One of the most remarkable feats of military engineering during the Cold War was the shootdown of an actual satellite by a fighter jet. The incident was the first and only use of the AGM-135 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. Although anti-satellite weapon development slowed after the end of the Cold War, it’s restarted in a big way, with new weapons being fielded by the U.S., Russia, and China.

Task & Purpose published an interview with Major General Wilbert “Doug” Pearson Jr., U.S. Air Force, retired. In addition to receiving the high rank of major general Pearson is the only pilot on Earth known to have shot down a satellite in orbit. Pearson accomplished this on September 13th, 1985, in the skies over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Pearson’s target was US P78-1 Solwind, an aging weather satellite.

The AGM-135 was the largest missile ever mounted on a F-15 Eagle. The weapon, designed by Vought was originally called the Prototype Miniature Air Launched System (PMALS). It was based on the Short Range Attack Missile, a nuclear-tipped missile used by the B-52 bomber. PMALS added a second stage and modified the missile to ascend straight into space, where its infrared-guided sensor package picked up the target and guided the missile into a collision.

The U.S. had built anti-satellite missiles before, but the weapons were land-based and couldn’t move. This restricted the weapon’s ability to shoot down enemy satellites. A fighter-based missile, on the other hand, could self-deploy worldwide to hit a specific satellite at a specific time. According to military space analyst Brian Weeden, the Air Force planned to purchase 112 AGM-135s and modify 48 F-15s to launch them, basing them in Washington and Virginia.

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