In September 1985, an F-15 Eagle was even able to destroy a machine orbiting Earth. But no, it wasn’t the Death Star mobile space station.
The F-15 Eagle is an all-weather fighter designed to gain and maintain air supremacy. As the first US fighter with engine thrust greater than its basic weight, the F-15A can accelerate while in a vertical climb. Its great power, light weight, and large wing area combine to make the Eagle a very agile fighter. The USAF ordered more than 350 A models for operational service.
In September 1985, an F-15A was even able to destroy a machine orbiting Earth.
But no, it wasn’t the Death Star mobile space station (the funny, photoshopped main image in this article was posted by the 412th Test Wing on Edwards Air Force Base Facebook page to celebrate the Star Wars Day and features the only F-15A ASAT testbed firing a Vought ASM-135A Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT) at Death Star).
Even though the F-15 never attacked a galactic superweapon, the ASM-135A carried by the Eagle was the only US air-launched missile ever to destroy a satellite and the original images showing the F-15 firing an ASAT (featured below) was taken on Sep. 13, 1985.
As explained by Steve Markman & Bill Holder in their book One-of-a-Kind Research Aircraft, development of an anti-satellite weapon system has long been a goal of the Department of Defense, and a number of ambitious and unsuccessful efforts have taken place since the 1960s. Most of the efforts were extremely complicated, but a 1980s program using a fighter-launched missile proved that it could be done.
The ASAT program actually began earlier as an outgrowth of the Prototype Miniature Air Launched Segment (PMALS) anti-satellite program. As the program matured, it was changed from PMALS to the more descriptive ASAT nomenclature.
The program involved the modification of an F-15A giving it the capability to carry and launch a 2,700 pound two-stage missile. The missile’s first stage was from an AGM-69 Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM), with a second stage consisting of a 6,000 pound thrust Altair III Thiokol rocket motor. Other features on the system included a seeker system and small rocket motors to aid on keeping the missile on course.
A single live-fire test of the system was accomplished on Sep. 13, 1985 when the F-15 was flown at a nearly vertical path to an altitude of 80,000 feet and then launched the missile. The particular F-15 used for this program was one of several based at Edwards Air Force Base for various test support missions. The ASAT destroyed a US Solwind P-78-1 Gamma Ray Spectrometer satellite which was used as the target. Despite the success of the launch, the test was never repeated and the unique ASAT system, developed to counter suspected Soviet satellites, was never continued.
The program was divided into two phases, the modifications to the launching F-15A testbed and the development of the weapon system itself.
Modifications to the aircraft, which were known as Group A, included the installation of a modified central computer, expanded environmental control system (ECS) ducting, reinforced ammunition bay cover, and ammunition conveyer restraint.
The Group B missile-associated components included stage ASAT missile, dedicated centerline pylon, modified ammo door and carrier aircraft equipment (C&E) pallet.
The launch technique used the so-called “Zoom” launch maneuver with the launching aircraft providing a significant velocity boost to the missile before its launch. The fact that the missile was launched at an extremely high altitude also greatly reduced the slowing aerodynamic drag forces the missile would have experienced at lower altitudes.
One-of-a-Kind Research Aircraft is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Edwards Air Force Base Facebook page