U.S. Strikes Failing Satellite

Using a sea-based missile defense system, the United States last night destroyed a failing satellite that the Bush administration said could threaten people on the ground if the satellite's fuel tank were allowed to fall to Earth intact, the Defense Department announced (see GSN, Feb. 20).

The USS Lake Erie, sailing in the Pacific Ocean, launched a modified Standard Missile 3 at 10:26 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, striking the satellite orbiting about 153 miles above the planet's surface (U.S. Defense Department release, Feb. 20).

One senior official said the U.S. military had probably achieved its goal of destroying the spy satellite's fuel tank, containing 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine, but that it would not be confirmed for up to 48 hours.

"We are very confident we hit the satellite and we also have a high degree of confidence we hit the tank," said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a press briefing this morning (Capaccio/Fireman, Bloomberg, Feb. 21).

Another defense official told the Associated Press that Pentagon observers viewed an explosion when the interceptor struck the satellite, suggesting that the hydrazine tank had been hit (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Google News, Feb. 21).

The debris field created by the colliding satellite and the nonexplosive interceptor was smaller than expected, Cartwright said, and no pieces larger than a football remained.  Pentagon officials earlier said that most of the debris would fall into Earth's atmosphere within a few days (Bloomberg, Feb. 21).

Plans to destroy the satellite drew the wrath of a number of critics who questioned the U.S. justification for its attempt.  Both China and Russia expressed concern, and a number of arms control advocacy groups suggested the test could be intended to demonstrate U.S. antisatellite capabilities, to bolster U.S. missile defense programs, or to prevent the nation's most modern radar spy satellite equipment from landing in an adversary's hands.

"Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an antisatellite 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," said Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a prepared statement (see GSN, Feb. 13).

"If the Pentagon demonstrates that its missile defense systems can destroy satellites, it will be very difficult to convince other countries that they shouldn't develop a similar antisatellite capability," she added.  "Moreover, concern that the United States has this offensive capability deployed around the world will likely complicate relations with Russian and China" (Union of Concerned Scientists release, Feb. 20).

In Moscow, Russian officials released a statement expressing concern that the U.S. action was an "attempt to move the arms race into space" the London Times reported.

Washington recently rebuffed a Chinese-Russian proposal to craft a treaty barring the weaponization of space (David Byers, London Times, Feb. 21).

One private U.S. expert yesterday defended the U.S. action and the rationale that public safety was the primary motivation.

"People are looking for ulterior motives for the shootdown because the official explanation -- preventing 1,000 pounds of hydrazine falling from the sky -- seems a bit thin," wrote James Lewis, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Technology and Public Policy Program, in a Google commentary.

"The hydrazine explanation seems far-fetched, but the alternative explanations make even less sense," he said.

The idea that the United States was demonstrating antisatellite capabilities doesn't hold water because "this is a ballistic missile defense test," he said, the difference being that antisatellite weapons would typically attack targets in higher orbits.

Similarly implausible is the idea that U.S. spy technology would fall into the wrong the hands, Lewis said.

"The probability of gaining useful information from the crash is low, as the best technology would have to survive re-entry and the debris would have to fall in an opponent-controlled area," he wrote.   "The probability of surviving re-entry and landing in a hostile controlled area are too low to explain the decision to shoot down."

Therefore, the hydrazine rationale would make the most sense, given the fact that a tank containing the material did survive the 2003 disastrous re-entry of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, he said.

Lewis said there would be an added bonus to successfully destroying the satellite:  "planetary defense." 

While the risk of an asteroid devastating the Earth may be "so rare as to be improbable," he said, "it would be nice to have the ability to stop it."

"It's not worth spending much time worrying about being hit by asteroids, however, or even by satellites, but having spent all that money on missile defense, it's nice that it finally has some practical use," he added (James Lewis, Google commentary, Feb. 20).

February 21, 2008
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Using a sea-based missile defense system, the United States last night destroyed a failing satellite that the Bush administration said could threaten people on the ground if the satellite's fuel tank were allowed to fall to Earth intact, the Defense Department announced (see GSN, Feb. 20).