The missile fired Feb. 20 from a U.S. Navy ship at a dead
spy satellite scored
a direct hit, smashing the school bus-sized target into pieces that a top Pentagon official described as no bigger than a football.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Feb. 21 he could say with a very high confidence that the satellite’s hydrazine-filled fuel tank – a potential hazard
to people on the ground – had been hit directly.
Senior U.S. officials
announced Feb. 14 that U.S. President George W. Bush decided to shoot down the experimental National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite out of safety concerns. Operators
lost the ability to communicate with and control the satellite shortly after it was launched in December 2006. Its orbit began degrading
and, if left alone, it was expected to re-enter the atmosphere and crash
in early March.
The window for firing at
the satellite was only seconds each day for the nine to
10 days between when NASA’s Space Shuttle
Atlantis landed Feb. 20 and when the satellite would have begun re-entering
. Despite forecasts of high seas early in the day, the Pentagon decided Feb. 20 would be the best chance.
Lake Erie, equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, fired a Standard Missile (SM)-3 from an area northwest of Hawaii at 10:26 p.m. EST
. The missile intercepted the satellite 247 kilometers above the surface, smashing it to bits through sheer kinetic energy.
Evidence points toward a direct hit on the satellite’s fuel tank, which contained about 450 kilograms of toxic hydrazine fuel. Cartwright said spectral analysis of data collected by airborne sensors indicates a
vapor cloud formed by the impact
likely was composed of hydrazine.
U.S. government officials have maintained that the
risk to human life posed
was the sole reason for shooting the satellite down
. Many satellites have re-entered the atmosphere and crashed to the ground, but never before had one been carrying this much toxic fuel; this satellite died before it had a chance to use it
the 3,125 kilogram satellite
been left undisturbed
roughly 1,750 kilograms of debris would have survived the re-entry and landed somewhere on Earth, according to U.S. officials.
As of press time Feb. 22, no debris had
made it through the atmosphere to Earth, a Pentagon spokesman said.
During a press conference Feb. 14, U.S. officials
half of the debris created by the impact would re-enter
within the first several hours, with the rest coming down
Critics of the
down the satellite suggested the U.S. government had hidden motives, such as testing
an anti-satellite weapon. China was subjected to widespread criticism last year after it tested an anti-satellite weapon, an event that left thousands of pieces of debris in Earth orbit.
Some U.S. lawmakers lauded the intercept as a prudent decision made in the public interest and hailed the versatility of U.S. missile defense capabilities.
“Our forces and technical experts are to be commended for destroying this malfunctioning satellite before it posed any threat to people on the ground,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in a Feb. 21 release. “This was an exceptional case, and I reiterate that this action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Missile Defense Caucus, called the intercept a demonstration “of the real and tangible technological progress” made on the development of the U.S. missile defense capability.
“It is my hope that the extremely challenging nature of the mission, the proven capability of our men and women in [the]
Armed Forces, and the extraordinary capability of our missile defense technology that successfully engaged a disabled satellite traveling more than [27,359 kilometers] per hour on the first try, will persuade any remaining critics who doubt the efficacy and importance of missile defense to our national security,” Franks said in a Feb. 21 news release.
Phil Coyle, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information and former Pentagon weapons tester, said he does not think shooting down a satellite gives the Aegis
system any more credibility as a missile defense capability.
I expected the Navy would be successful in the attempt,” Coyle said. “They had a big target that was traveling in a predictable orbit, and they had presumably a lot of time to prepare. A real enemy wouldn’t give you a month’s notice.”
Coyle also said this sets a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.
“I am concerned this makes it incrementally easier for other countries to do the same,” he said. “China did it last year, and we had to show them we still know how to do it. I bet you a dinner Russia will do it next.”
In the long term, he said, this shootdown will be less controversial than the Chinese anti-satellite test
because the U.S. government was much more forthcoming with details of its plans and the results of the operation. He also noted that unlike the Chinese test, the
debris from the Feb. 20 shootdown will not remain in orbit for years
Colin Clark contributed to this story from Washington.