(March 15, 2002) -- With luck, LB residents may be able to see a missile launch plume in the western sky shortly after sunset today, testing part of a missile defense system that may eventually protect the U.S. from an incoming weapon of mass destruction.
If all goes according to plan, a target missile (like the one on the right in a successful Dec. 2001 test) launched from Vandenberg AFB near Ventura will be intercepted and destroyed by an interceptor missile fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marhsall Islands. [Photos on this page from Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Dept. of Defense].
The Defense Dept test of its Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is scheduled for March 15 sometime between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Pacific time. If the launch occurs close to 6 p.m. or within less than an hour thereafter, LB residents may be able to see a plume from the rising Vandenberg target missile as it climbs over the Pacific.
If all systems work, the interceptor missile launched from Kwajalein (photo left) will hit and destroy the Vandenberg target payload high above the Pacific, a genuinely amazing feat.
LB residents may be able to see a plume from the Vandenberg target missile in the west/northwest sky if weather and timing cooperate. Previous tests have produced visible plumes when they occurred shortly after local sunset, providing backlighting effects as duskness falls at ground level while some sun still illuminates the upper atmosphere. Sunset will occur today at 6:00 p.m.
However, the plume may not be visible if the launch occurs too long after sunset, or if low clouds or fog obscure the view. Some previous tests have also been delayed or cancelled.
On previous launches visible locally, the plume has appeared at roughly (very roughly) 270-280 degrees (north is zero degrees) with a squiggly trace slightly above rooftop level.
Here are further details from a Defense Dept. release:
The test will involve the launch of an Orbital Suborbital Program (OSP) long-range missile from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. The OSP, a modified Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile, will carry a mock warhead and three balloon decoys. About 20 minutes after the target missile is launched, and about 4,800 miles away, a Payload Launch Vehicle missile carrying a prototype exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) interceptor will launch from the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. About 10 minutes later the intercept should take place at an altitude of approximately 140 miles above the central Pacific Ocean during the midcourse phase of the target warhead's flight.
This will be an integrated system test, with all representative system elements participating: space-based missile warning sensor; ground-based early warning radar, the prototype X-Band radar at Kwajalein Atoll and the battle management, command, control and communications system located at Kwajalein Atoll and the Joint National Integration Facility in Colorado Springs, Colo. Since the system is in its research and development phase, these elements serve as either prototypes or surrogates for system elements which are in the developmental stage and have not yet been produced for actual operational use.
This will be the sixth intercept test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system (formerly National Missile Defense) research and development program. The first test on Oct. 3, 1999 resulted in the successful intercept of a ballistic missile target. The second test took place on Jan. 19, 2000 and did not achieve an intercept due to a clogged cooling pipe on the EKV, but did successfully test the integrated system of elements. The third test, on July 8, 2000, did not result in an intercept due an unsuccessful separation of the EKV from the booster rocket. The fourth test, on July 14, 2001, achieved a successful intercept of a ballistic missile target. The fifth test, on Dec. 3, 2001, also resulted in a successful intercept.