Something went into orbit on the 28th. Maybe.
Normally, I herald each new space launch with strident fanfare. After all, when Vanguard or Explorer go up, it’s big news and everybody knows about it. But the Air Force’s announced launch of “Discoverer” on February 28 has that same sort of strangeness and after-the-fact quality I’ve come to associate with Soviet Sputnik launches.
Let’s back up.
Yesterday, the Air Force announced that it had launched “Discoverer” into polar orbit from its California launching facility, Vandenberg Air Force Base. They said it was an engineering flight designed to test what will someday be a biological sample return mission (i.e. the Air Force will send up animals, retrieve them after several days in space, and study them to determine the effects of space on living things). Apparently, this is the second time they have tried this; the first time was on January 26 of this year, but it was reportedly unsuccessful.
Here is where the story gets a bit dicey:
1) Why was Discoverer launched into a polar orbit? Normally, space launches are done from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Aided by the Earth’s rotation, they go out on an Easterly course over the Atlantic. This restricts their track to a narrow range of latitudes. A satellite in a polar orbit eventually covers the entire Earth as the planet rotates underneath the track of the probe’s flight, making it better suited for mapping and reconnaissance missions.
2) Why wouldn’t strictly scientific missions be done under the auspices of NASA, as the Air Force did with the Pioneer moon shots?
3) If Discoverer made it into orbit, why have independent stations been unable to pick up its telemetry on their radios?
4) What did they use to launch it? A capsule-return spacecraft isn’t a light vehicle, and neither the Thor-Able nor the Juno II are strong enough to send one into orbit.
Now, I don’t want to be visited by the fellows in gray suits for my observational acumen, but putting two and two together, I’d conclude that Discoverer must be a prototype surveillance satellite. If I really wanted to get far out with my speculations, I’d conclude that it’s a fake surveillance satellite designed to gauge the reaction of the Eastern Bloc to having a spy probe overhead.
Apparently, the Communists don’t care much. Aside from one stern protest from an East German radio station (I know–all Commies are the same), the Warsaw Pact has been conspicuously silent about Discoverer.
Maybe they know it’s a fake…
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)