Atlantis opens window for spy satellite shoot-down

Updated: 2008-02-20 14:13

WASHINGTON -- The anticipated landing of the space shuttle Atlantis on Wednesday will open the window of opportunity for the US military to shoot down a dying spy satellite heading toward Earth, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.

US President George Bush has authorized Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to give the shoot-down order, and the secretary received a briefing on the plan today, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. The secretary is prepared to make that call from the road, if necessary, during his nine-day, around-the-world trip that begins tomorrow, he said.

Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week the window of opportunity for shooting down the satellite would last seven or eight days.

The shoot-down could happen as early as Wednesday night, but no final decision on timing has been made.

Cartwright, Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the US Strategic Command, and other experts across the US military and government "are evaluating the situation and will advise the secretary when they have a shot to take," Morrell said.

On Tuesday, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a 24-hour notice warning aircraft and ships to steer clear of the projected shoot-down zone in the Pacific. New warnings will be issued every 24 hours during the anticipated shoot-down window, Morrell said.

The Pentagon announced last week the plan to shoot down the malfunctioning US spy satellite just above the atmosphere, because the satellite could cause death or injury if it fell in a populated area. Of particular concern is that the satellite could release hydrazine, a toxic chemical used as a maneuvering fuel.

The US Navy has prepared for the mission by modifying three SM-3 missiles aboard Aegis ships to strike the satellite, Cartwright said last week.

Morrell emphasized again on Tuesday that the mission isn't designed to test US anti-satellite capabilities. "This operation is designed to alleviate a threat to human beings on this planet. There is a large tank of hydrazine fuel onboard that satellite that would pose a significant threat to people within the immediate vicinity of it if it were to hit land."

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