Military says missile hit spy satellite

Updated: 2008-02-21 12:50


The USS Lake Erie launches a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean February 20, 2008 in this handout photo released by the US Defense Department. A missile from a US Navy warship hit a defunct US spy satellite 133 nautical miles (247 km) above the Earth in an attempt to blow apart its tank of toxic fuel, the Pentagon said on Wednesday. [Agencies] 

President Bush gave his approval last week to attempt the satellite shootdown on grounds that it was worth trying to destroy the toxic fuel on board the satellite before it could possibly land in a populated area.

The three-stage Navy missile, designated the SM-3, 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. A hurry-up program to adapt the missile for this anti-satellite mission was completed in a matter of weeks; 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 pm EST Wednesday, indicating the first window of opportunity to launch the missile.

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 an SM-3 missile just before it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, in that way minimizing the amount of debris that would remain in space.

Left alone, the satellite would have been expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft would have been expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would have scattered debris over several hundred miles.

 A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from a guided-missile cruiser in an image courtesy of the US Navy. A missile fired from a US Navy warship hit a defunct spy satellite in space to try to prevent its toxic fuel tank from crashing to Earth, the Pentagon said on Wednesday. [Agencies]


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