WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has decided to try to shoot down a failing 5,000-pound spy satellite, fearing its rocket fuel could turn into a deadly toxic gas if the spacecraft crashed in a populated area, officials said Thursday.
The unusual operation, to be carried out in the next several days, would be the first U.S. attempt to shoot down a satellite since Cold War-era military tests ended in the 1980s.
Pentagon officials plan to use the same ships and missiles that are part of the Navy’s nascent missile-defense system. Ships in the North Pacific plan to fire a tactical missile at the satellite when it reaches a low orbit of about 130 nautical miles over their general location.
Some experts theorized that the administration was influenced by concern that classified components on the intelligence satellite could fall into hostile hands. Denying that, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said any sensitive instruments would burn on re-entry.
“Once you go through the atmosphere and the heating and the burning, that would not be an issue in this case,” Cartwright said at a news conference. “It would not justify using a missile to take it and break it up further.”
However, the government has never resorted to shooting down a disabled spacecraft or satellite, despite dozens of crashes and re-entries. Administration officials said this time is different because the satellite failed shortly after its launch in December 2006, leaving almost all of its 1,000 pounds of hydrazine rocket fuel frozen in the uncontrollable spacecraft.
Cartwright compared it to a bus, with only half of the craft likely to burn on re-entry. That means the fuel tank could survive if it is not destroyed by the missile strike. Normally, aging satellites – their onboard fuel mostly consumed – are steered into the ocean at the end of their life. But with the spy satellite’s power and communications inoperable, it is tumbling, unguided, to Earth.
Officials compared the effects of hydrazine fuel to chlorine or ammonia.
“It affects your tissues and your lungs – it has the burning sensation,” Cartwright said. “If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly.”
Experts on military satellites agreed that the dispersal of hydrazine could pose a serious health hazard, although even Cartwright said it probably would be spread over a space the size of only two football fields.
John F. Pike, a military analyst who specializes in space-based weapons and intelligence systems, said that under normal circumstances, dying satellites are guided into the Pacific Ocean, primarily so that foreign rivals do not get their hands on sensitive components.
“I’m not arguing that hydrazine isn’t a problem,” Pike said. “But they’re so concerned in normal circumstances about things falling into the wrong hands that I’m not sure I believe them.”
However, administration officials insisted public safety was the reason President Bush approved the plan to shoot down the satellite.
“This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings,” said James F. Jeffrey, assistant to Bush and deputy national security adviser, appearing with Cartwright.
The satellite was operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency responsible for the nation’s spy satellites. Officials would not comment on the satellite’s mission or its cost and could not estimate the cost of shooting it down.
U.S. officials harshly criticized China after learning last year that its military shot down an aging weather satellite. That incident recharged an international debate over space weapons and prompted a Pentagon review of the safety of U.S. orbiters.
Drawing a contrast with the more secretive Chinese operation, U.S. officials dispatched diplomats from around the world to explain their decision.
The officials also said the Chinese destroyed their satellite at a higher orbit than plans for hitting the U.S. spy satellite. China’s shoot-down left debris orbiting the Earth, while Pentagon plans call for hitting the spycraft just as it enters the atmosphere, so debris would re-enter and burn.
The Pentagon would not say which ship would be assigned the task. One Aegis cruiser, the Lake Erie, has conducted more extensive testing than other ships of the Standard Missile 3 – a defensive rocket that will be used to shoot down the satellite. The Lake Erie is stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The Pentagon will wait to take the shot until the shuttle Atlantis, currently docked at the International Space Station, returns to Earth, scheduled for Monday.
The Navy ships will be modified so the missiles can be used to shoot down the satellite, but Cartwright said those changes will consist of minor software modifications, meaning the shoot-down will be similar to missile-defense tests regularly performed in the Pacific.
“What we’re trying to do is match up that period in which the satellite looks most like a reentering missile,” Cartwright said.
Several Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers were deployed to the waters off the coast of North Korea in July 2006 when Pyongyang tested several medium- and long-range missiles, including the Taepo-Dong II, suspected to be capable of reaching U.S. bases in the Pacific.
None of the ships fired on the missiles, however, instead using radars to track and monitor the test.
The satellite shoot-down will give the Navy its first real-life, uncontrolled test of the Aegis-based system.