February 21, 2008
The US say they will know in 48 hours if a potentially
toxic fuel tank had been destroyed [Reuters]
A missile fired from a US navy warship in the Pacific has hit a spy satellite in an effort to prevent its toxic fuel tank from crashing to Earth, a Pentagon source has said.
Thursday's mission to disable the out-of-control satellite has been criticised by both the Chinese and Russian governments who argue the move could harm space security.
The Pentagon said that after delays due to bad weather: "The missile's been launched and [it was] a successful intercept."
The US president had ordered the satellite shot down because, if it entered Earth's atmosphere, the 450kg of toxic hydrazine fuel aboard could have posed a health hazard.
James Cartwright, the vice president of the joint chiefs of staff, said at a press briefing at the Pentagon: "We have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank.
"[However], it will probably take us another 24 to 48 hours to get to a point where we are very comfortable with our analysis that we indeed breached the tank.
"We have a debris field - we are seeing re-entry in the Atlantic and the Pacific right now."
However, the mission has not gone without criticism, or speculation that the real purpose is to test missile capabilities.
The Chinese Communist party newspaper wrote: "The United States, the world's top space power, has often accused other countries of vigorously developing military space technology.
"But faced with the Chinese-Russian proposal to restrict space armaments, it runs in fear from what it claimed to love."
Last year, China was also criticised by the US and several of its allies which accused Beijing of risking a space arms race after it used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its own obsolete weather satellites.
Russia's defence ministry also said it feared the US plan was a veiled test of US anti-satellite capabilities and represented an "attempt to move the arms race into space".
The ministry said: "The decision to destroy the American satellite does not look harmless as they try to claim, especially at a time when the US has been evading negotiations on the limitation of an arms race in outer space."
Satellite code name USA-193 launched in December 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
Top secret military reconnaissance mission - a 'spy satellite'
Satellite contact was lost hours after it entered orbit
Satellite itself weighs about two tonnes and is about the size of a bus
The SM-3 missile was fired from the USS Lake Erie in the Pacific Ocean at about 10:26 EST (0326 GMT Thursday), the Pentagon said.
"Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry [of the Earth's atmosphere] within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days," it said.
Left alone, about half of the spacecraft was expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would scatter debris over several hundred miles.
Cartwright said that the mass of the satellite had been reduced substantially by the hit.
The US military said that they have seen no pieces of debris larger than the size of a football fall back to earth so far.
Critics have said the justification of health fears may be a cover for preventing highly classified spy satellite technology from falling into foreign hands.
Jing-Dong Yuan, from the non-proliferation programme at the James Martin Centre, told Al Jazeera that the toxic-spread argument is "not very credible according to scientists and other analysts".
"The chances of a spy satellite hitting a populated area are only very small. We know that only 30 per cent of the earth is populated, so the vast majority would be the ocean," he said.
Robert Massey, a scientist in London, told Al Jazeera that the US may want to shoot down the spy satellite because "if it landed in the wrong place ... some of their less favourable allies might decide to examine the contents".
Jing-Dong said: "Another reason is that the US has used this opportunity to test its own missile defence capabilities or anti-satellite capabilities."
The missile carries a non-explosive "kinetic kill vehicle" – designed essentially to destroy the satellite by smashing into it.
The technique is similar to the system employed in US anti-missile shields.
The US military spokesman said that the technical expertise of the US missile defence agency was central to the hit. The missile used crucial sensors used in defence systems to target the satellite.
The project was initially delayed after weather forecasts on Wednesday in the Pacific, where the US warship was stationed for the mission, indicated that seas would not be calm enough for the ship to fire a missile.
But the Pentagon had to act before February 29, when the dead satellite, about 247km above the Pacific Ocean, was projected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.
On Wednesday, the space shuttle Atlantis landed in Florida, clearing the way for the military operation to proceed.
The Pentagon had been waiting for the shuttle to land to avoid contact with flying debris as the satellite returned to Earth.
Atlantis returned after completing a mission to deliver Europe's first permanent space laboratory to the International Space Station.
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