- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

A missile fired from a U.S. Navy warship hit a defunct spy satellite in space to try to prevent its toxic-fuel tank from crashing to Earth, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The SM-3 missile was fired from the USS Lake Erie in the Pacific Ocean at about 10:26 EST and hit the bus-sized satellite about 133 nautical miles above the ocean, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“A network of land, air, sea and space-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a nonfunctioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite, which was in its final orbits before entering the Earth’s atmosphere,” it said.

“Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours,” the statement said.

“Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere immediately,” it added.

“Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days.”

In a routine precaution, notifications have been issued worldwide to mariners and aviators to stay clear of an area in the Pacific where the satellite debris might fall. The military has calculated that the risk to aviation is so low that U.S. and international aviation officials have decided they are probably not going to reroute air traffic, a senior military officer said yesterday.

The Pentagon said last week that President Bush had decided the Navy should try to shoot down the satellite because its tank of hazardous hydrazine could leak if it enters the atmosphere and reaches Earth.

Russia and China have expressed concern about the operation. The Russian Defense Ministry said it could be used as cover to test a new space weapon.

Washington has insisted the operation is purely to prevent people being harmed by the satellite’s fuel load.

Much of the equipment used in the satellite shootdown is part of the Pentagon’s missile-defense system, a far-flung network of interceptors, radars and communications systems designed primarily to hit an incoming ballistic missile fired at the United States by North Korea. The equipment, including the Navy missile, has never been used against a satellite or other such target.

The three-stage Navy missile has chalked up a high rate of success in tests since 2002 — in each case targeting a short- or medium-range missile. A hurry-up program to adapt the missile for this anti-satellite mission was completed in a matter of weeks. Navy officials say the changes will be reversed once this satellite is down.

Some people were skeptical.

“The potential political cost of shooting down this satellite is high,” said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon is counterproductive to U.S. long-term interests, given that the United States has the most to gain from an international space weapons ban. Instead, it should be taking the lead in negotiating a treaty.”

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