US missile hits crippled satellite

Pentagon waits to see whether strike destroyed tank with hazardous fuel

Email|Print| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / February 21, 2008

HONOLULU - A US Navy cruiser based in Pearl Harbor fired a missile last night that struck a crippled spy satellite roughly 150 miles above the earth, in an attempt to prevent the out-of-control spacecraft from dumping hazardous fuel on a population center, the Pentagon said.

"A network of land-, air-, sea- and space-based sensors confirms that the US military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the earth's atmosphere," the Pentagon said in a short statement.

The mission in the northern Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii was undertaken by the USS Lake Erie at approximately 10:26 p.m. East Coast time, it said.

The missile ship, relying on advanced radars and other missile defense technologies, "fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph," the statement added.

Also taking part in the first-of-its kind operation were two destroyers, the USS Decatur and USS Russell, which employed their Aegis tracking systems to help target the satellite and were also in place to launch more missiles if the Lake Erie had missed.

However, full details of the damage, including whether the missile launch destroyed the fuel tank carrying a hazardous fuel called hydrazine, were not expected to be available for up to 24 hours, according to the Pentagon, which will then determine whether more attempts are needed.

"The objective was to rupture the fuel tank to dissipate the approximately 1,000 pounds (453 kg) of hydrazine, a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on earth, before it entered into earth's atmosphere," the Pentagon said.

According to the Associated Press, a defense official said last night that an initial view of the missile strike on the spy satellite indicated it probably hit the spacecraft's fuel tank.

A press briefing was scheduled for 7 a.m. in Washington, D.C., today to provide more details.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had arrived in Hawaii a few hours before the missile was launched. He was there to begin a round-the-world trip, not to monitor the missile operation. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters traveling with Gates that the defense chief gave the go-ahead at 1:40 p.m. EST while en route from Washington, according to the Associated Press.

Morrell said Gates had a conference call during the flight with Air Force General Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command, and Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They told him that "the conditions were ripe for an attempt, and that is when the secretary gave the go-ahead to take the shot and wished them good luck," Morrell said.

The AP said Gates spoke to both generals again at 10:35 p.m. and "was informed that the mission was a success, that the missile had intercepted the decaying satellite, and the secretary was obviously very pleased to learn that," said Morrell.

Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed confidence about an hour before the launch that the Navy would successfully mitigate the potential threat posed by the broken satellite.

"There has been a lot of work over the last many weeks to learn everything we can to optimize the possibility we will, in fact, get a hit," Mullen told reporters at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu before traveling to Australia for security talks.

Mullen also stressed that the United States has gone out of its way to assuage any concerns of foreign nations that the mission was also being used to test the military's ability to destroy the satellites of other countries.

China and Russia have both expressed concerns that the launch was meant to test a new antisatellite weapon.

But Mullen said the missile that was used was specially modified for the mission and was not designed as a satellite weapon. The United States did conduct a test of a specially designed antisatellite weapon in the 1980s, and China last year was criticized for testing one of its own. Such weapons could threaten military and civilian communication and imaging systems orbiting the earth.

Mullen said yesterday's intercept was meant to be conducted at an "altitude that minimizes the amount of space debris that could occur if the shot occurred at a much higher altitude," like the Chinese test last year.

"Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to reenter the earth's atmosphere immediately," the Pentagon predicted last night. "Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24-48 hours, and the remaining debris should reenter within 40 days."

Mullen stressed that the Standard missile - originally designed by Raytheon Company, a Waltham-based firm, to hit enemy aircraft and missiles - would be used in space only for "this kind of really emergency kind of response."

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