WASHINGTON – The unprecedented downing of an errant spy satellite by a Navy missile makes clear that the Pentagon now has a new weapon in its arsenal: an anti-satellite missile adapted from the nation’s missile defense program.
While the dramatic intercept took place well below the altitude where most satellites orbit, defense and space experts said Wednesday night’s first-shot success strongly suggests that the military has the technology and know-how to knock out satellites at much higher orbits.
The Pentagon officials said it was 90 percent certain the missile had struck its primary target, a tank containing toxic fuel, but they stressed that the shoot-down did not indicate that the United States was actively developing an anti-satellite program. Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the effort was not a test of the nation’s missile defense system nor a show of force to put other countries on notice that the United States can take down a satellite.
“This was uncharted territory,” he said. “We see this as a one-time event.”
Nonetheless, many space experts and arms control advocates in the United States and abroad said the shot had opened the door to more anti-satellite tests by more nations.
“Demonstrably, we do have an (anti-satellite) capability now,” said David Mosher, a defense and space expert with the Rand Corp. “Anyone who followed national missile defense issues knew we’ve had that inherent ability for some time. But now it’s real, and we can expect there will be consequences.”
Clay Moltz, a professor of nuclear and space policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, agreed that the destruction of the satellite did not signal a new capability, but he said it might have sent a signal to other countries that could set a bad precedent.
“It solved a short-term problem, but it may cause us long-term headaches in terms of emerging test programs in other countries,” Moltz said.
Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said it was “remarkable” – and good news – that the missile defense system is so easily adaptable.
“We now have something that has the capability, anywhere around the world, to handle a falling satellite,” Ellison said. “The world wasn’t really watching it before. This is much more now known throughout the world that we have this capability.”
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper condemned what it called Washington’s callous attitude toward the weaponizing of space. The Chinese government – which conducted a full-scale anti-satellite test in January 2001 – asked the United States to release data on the downing and where the satellite’s debris would fall. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Honolulu said some information would be shared to assure the Chinese and others that any pieces that reach the surface will not be hazardous.
Many governments accepted the Bush administration’s explanation that the satellite had to be knocked down because it was carrying a 1,000-pound tank of potentially hazardous hydrazine rocket fuel.
Geoffrey Forden, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked with colleagues to estimate the probability of the hydrazine harming anyone on Earth, said that if the fuel tank made it through the atmosphere, there was a 3-in-100 chance that it would land within 100 yards of someone on the ground.
He and his colleagues also calculated, however, that the tank would be subject to a force of 50 times gravity (at the surface) as it fell through the atmosphere, and there was virtually no chance that it would have remained intact.
“It certainly would seem that protecting people against a hazardous fuel was not what this was really about,” he said.
At 150 miles altitude, the shot was the highest successful intercept by an SM-3 missile, surpassing earlier successes by nearly 50 percent. Experts said that means the military could use the modified missiles to track and destroy satellites that are perhaps as high as 200 to 250 miles, although no testing has been done at those heights with these specific missiles.
The Pentagon had modified three SM-3 missiles to shoot at the out-of-control satellite at a cost of between $30 million and $40 million. Cartwright said the two unused missiles would now be reconfigured to their previous condition.
Amateur astronomers on Canada’s west coast told the Associated Press that they had seen about two dozen trails of debris in the sky within minutes of when the missile hit, around 7:30 p.m. PST.
While the remaining debris is expected to fall out of orbit within two weeks, the debate over the implications of the downing will remain.
“I think they were using the threat as cover to do something they have been wanting to do for a long time,” said Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information who specializes in missile defense. “It shows that our missile defense programs are not just missile defense programs, they’re also anti-satellite programs.”
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