Navy missile scores pinpoint hit on wayward spy satellite
Destroying the satellite’s onboard tank of about 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel was the primary goal, and a senior defense official close to the mission said Thursday that it appears the tank was destroyed, and the strike with a specially designed missile was a complete success.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the shootdown, which came late Wednesday as he began an eight-day, around-the-world trip on which he likely will face questions about the mission.
The elaborate intercept may trigger worries from some international leaders, who could see it as a thinly disguised attempt to test an anti-satellite weapon – one that could take out other nation’s orbiting communications and spy spacecraft.
Within hours of the reported success, China said it was on the alert for possible harmful fallout from the shootdown and urged Washington to promptly release data on the action.
“China is continuously following closely the possible harm caused by the U.S. action to outer space security and relevant countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at news conference in Beijing. “China requests the U.S. to fulfill its international obligations in real earnest and provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way so that relevant countries can take precautions.”
While Pentagon officials stressed that the satellite strike was a one-time incident, it certainly will spin off massive amounts of data and research that can be studied by the military as it works to improve its missile defense technologies.
Officials had expressed cautious optimism that the missile would hit the bus-sized satellite, but they were less certain of hitting the smaller, more worrisome fuel tank.
In a statement released after the satellite was shot, the Pentagon said, “Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours.” But a short time later, several defense officials close to the situation said it appeared the fuel tank was hit. One said observers saw what appeared to be an explosion. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the results had not been formally documented at the time they spoke.
Because the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude at the time it was hit by the missile, debris will begin to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere immediately, the Pentagon statement said.
“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,” it said.
Gates approved the missile launch at about 1:40 p.m. EST, while en route from Washington to Hawaii. Within nine hours – at 10:26 p.m. EST – the USS Lake Erie, fired the SM-3 missile originally designed to knock down incoming missiles rather than orbiting satellites.
It hit the satellite about three minutes later as the spacecraft traveled in polar orbit at more than 17,000 mph.
The Lake Erie and two other Navy warships, as well as the missile and other components, were modified in a hurry-up project started in January. The missile alone cost nearly $10 million, and officials estimated that the total cost of the project was at least $30 million.
The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Gates – not a military commander down the chain of command – made the decision to pull the trigger.
Gates had arrived in Hawaii less than two hours before the missile was launched. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Gates had a conference call during his flight with Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command, and Marine Gen. 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.
At 10:35 p.m. EST, Gates spoke to both generals again 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.
Adm. Timothy J. Keating, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters shortly before the strike that he made calls to a number of international leaders to alert them to the mission. He said none said they had concerns, but he acknowledged he did not speak to the Chinese.
China and Russia both expressed concerns about the shootdown in advance, saying it could harm security in outer space.
The government organized hazardous materials teams, under the code name “Burnt Frost,” to be flown to the site of any dangerous or otherwise sensitive debris that might land in the United States or elsewhere.
Also, six federal response groups regularly positioned across the country by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were alerted but had not been activated Wednesday, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said before the missile launch. “These are purely precautionary and preparedness actions only,” he said.
President Bush approved the shootdown mission last week, deciding it was important to destroy the toxic hydrazine fuel to prevent any possible injuries if the satellite came down in a populated area.
The three-stage Navy missile used for the mission has chalked up a high rate of success in a series of tests since 2002, in each case targeting a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, never a satellite. Modifications to the missile for the mission were completed in a matter of weeks, and Navy officials said the changes would be reversed once this satellite was down.
The government issued notices to aviators and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific Ocean beginning at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday.
Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite was out of control and well below the altitude of a normal satellite. The Pentagon determined it should hit it with the missile just before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, to minimize the amount of debris that would remain in space.
Left alone, the satellite would have hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft was expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would have scattered debris over several hundred miles.
Robert Burns reported from Washington, Lolita C. Baldor from Honolulu. Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
Last updated: 4:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012