The Only Jet Fighter Ever to Shoot Down a Satellite

Doug Pearson’s F-15 scored a hit in orbit in 1985.

An ASM-135 accelerates shortly after launch from the Celestial Eagle. (NASM (SI-2006-11672~A))
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Today the Boeing F-15 Eagle is best known for its strike role: It’s one of the U.S. Air Force’s most fearsome ground-pounders. But before the F-15E Strike Eagle, there was the F-15A Celestial Eagle, the launch platform that sent a missile up instead of down in a cold war test to see if the Air Force could destroy an enemy’s military satellites.

On September 13, 1985, Major Doug Pearson flew his F-15 to a predetermined point over the eastern Pacific Ocean and pulled up into a 65-degree climb.  At 38,100 feet, the F-15’s missile automatically launched toward the oncoming Solwind P78-1, a Department of Defense solar physics observatory orbiting 345 miles above. The satellite was selected for the test because it had degraded batteries and was barely operating. Minutes after the missile launch, Solwind P78-1 was a cloud of debris. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network identified at least 285 pieces. (For more about orbital debris, see “Earth, Clean Up Your Trash!”) Russia, China, and the United States have all tested anti-satellite weapons.  There are unconfirmed reports of a Russian test as late as 2015.

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