Navy Hits Spy Satellite, Pieces Disintegrate - InformationWeek

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2/21/2008
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Navy Hits Spy Satellite, Pieces Disintegrate

Debris is expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere immediately and most is expected to dissipate within 48 hours.

The U.S. Navy believes it struck a stray spy satellite in an attempt to minimize risks from debris as the satellite hurls back toward Earth.

The Pentagon issued a statement late Wednesday night saying that its network of sensors confirmed the interception of the wayward, non-functioning satellite, which was expected to fall back into Earth's atmosphere within days or weeks. The satellite launched in December 2006 and failed almost immediately. Its communications equipment failed, leaving the military with no control over it.

At first, military experts said the satellite posed little risk to people since about 75% of the Earth is covered by water and it was statistically unlikely to land in a populated area. They later said that 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel could endanger people and about half of the 5,000-pound satellite's weight could survive re-entry. It appeared that the satellite could land in North America or near Hawaii, so President George W. Bush empowered military leaders to issue shoot-down orders.

The strike was planned for Wednesday, but insiders doubted whether the conditions would be right. Clear skies allowed them to go ahead with the plan, launching a single modified tactical Standard Missile (SM-3) from the USS Lake Erie, a Navy AEGIS warship at 10:26 p.m. The U.S. Department of Defense said that land, air and sea sensors indicated a successful hit, as the satellite traveled more than 17,000 mph, about 133 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean.

"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 Defense Department's press service announced Wednesday. "Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours."

Debris was expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere immediately and most was expected to dissipate within 48 hours. Some satellite remnants could re-enter for up to 40 days, the Defense Department said.

Military leaders warned local agencies not to touch or move any materials that may land on the Earth's surface, though Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was unlikely any pieces would land intact.

During a news conference, Cartwright said he believes the satellite was destroyed, the tank and its contents burned up and remaining debris is smaller than a football.

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