(The Washington Post) - A Navy cruiser in the Pacific Ocean will try an unprecedented shoot down of an out-of-control, school bus-sized spy satellite loaded with a toxic fuel as it begins its plunge to Earth, national security officials said Thursday.
President Bush made the decision because it was impossible to predict where a tank containing the fuel might land in an uncontrolled descent.
The Pentagon decided to use a modified, ship-fired anti-ballistic missile to make the attempt sometime after Feb. 20 to avoid creating debris that could threaten the space shuttle on its return from the International Space Station, according to a military source.
Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Navy missile will be fired as the satellite re-enters the atmosphere and "has a reasonably high opportunity for success." The Pentagon and NASA have been working on the missile modifications for the last three weeks.
Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey said the decision was based on the fact that the satellite is carrying a substantial amount of a hazardous rocket fuel, hydrazine.
When the pending crash was first announced last month, however, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe minimized the danger, saying that the potential for pieces hitting any populated area was "very small."
Unless it is shot down, the satellite, which has been out of ground communication since its launch more than a year ago, is expected "to make an uncontrolled reentry ... on or about March 6," according to documents the Bush administration provided to the United Nations Thursday. "At present," said an official notification sent Thursday to countries around the world as well as the U.N. and NATO, "we cannot predict the entry impact area."
Officials Thursday acknowledged that many satellites - some of them much larger - have fallen to earth in the past without harm. But they said the presence of 1,000 pounds of hydrazine - unexpended fuel contained in a 40-inch sphere that was likely to hit the ground intact - led Bush to approve the Pentagon's recommendation to attempt the shootdown.
The announcement set off an immediate debate on defense blogs and among experts who questioned whether there was an ulterior motive. Some experts said the military was seizing an opportunity to test its controversial missile defense system against a satellite target.
But others noted that the Standard missile 3 has successfully been tested against warhead targets, which are far smaller than the satellite.
"There has to be another reason behind this," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a liberal arms-control advocacy organization. "In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."
NASA administrator Michael Griffin insisted that the interception was not a ruse to try the defense system on a satellite or to one-up other countries that have made similar attempts. The administration was harshly critical of China when it destroyed an aging satellite in orbit.
The difference, Griffin said, "is, one, we are notifying, which is required by treaties and law. OK?" The Chinese satellite was destroyed at a much higher altitude - about 600 miles - creating a field of orbiting space debris that creates hazards for other spacecraft.
The United States and Soviet Union conducted anti-satellite tests in the mid-1980s but stopped once it became clear that the debris from the destroyed spacecraft became a danger to other satellites and even spaceships. Griffin said the low altitude at which the satellite will be targeted - about 150 miles - would minimize orbiting debris.
"The lower we can catch this, the quicker the debris reenters," he said. More than half the pieces will burn up or hit Earth before making two revolutions around the Earth and the rest will come down in "weeks, maybe a month, but it's a very finite period of time that we can manage."
Jeffrey said that the fuel tank was the only piece of the craft that was not expected to explode on reentry and it was hoped the missile could destroy it in space. If it hits the earth, it could leak gas and cause potentially fatal injury over an area of the size of about two football fields, he said, adding that "this is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings."
Other experts, however, said they believed the heat of reentry would cause the tank to explode safely high in the air.
Two additional U.S. Navy cruisers, with backup missiles, have been configured for a second and third chance, if necessary, he said, although the window for shooting down the spacecraft is quite small.
The National Reconnaissance Organization satellite lost contact with ground control soon after it was launched in December 2006. Never ordered to burn its maneuvering fuel, it still carries about 1,000 pounds of frozen hydrazine, a substance Cartwright compared to "similar to chlorine or to ammonia in that when you inhale it, it affects your tissues in your lungs ... It has the burning sensation. If you stay very close to it an inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly."
The Columbia spacecraft, which lost control and hit the earth in 2003, also contained a canister of hydrazine gas that landed intact in a Texas woodland. The Columbia was at the end of its mission, however, and most of the hydrazine had already burned up.
Cartwright said that the Aegis missile system aboard the cruiser would fire an SM-3 Standard missile with a heat-seeking nose that destroys its target by hitting it, not blowing it up. The missile, known as Block III, was developed primarily for a tactical intermediate missile defense against warheads coming in at low altitude. The Navy has spent the past three weeks modifying missile software normally set for hitting much higher targets, he said.
Asked whether this was really an attempt to test the Aegis system for use as an anti-satellite system - which would be a very controversial step internationally - Cartwright said the amount of special modifications being done to the programs used to guide the system would "not be transferable to fleet use."
He also rejected widely disseminated blog allegations that the destruction of the satellite had been planned to keep classified information aboard from landing in non-U.S. hands. Everything other than the gas container, he said, would be blown to pieces on reentry even without the missile hit, he said.
Members of Congress were briefed on the plan Thursday, as were diplomats from other nations. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton said in a statement that "I attended a Congressional briefing this morning by the Department of Defense, and I am satisfied that the destruction of the malfunctioning satellite is the best option available to protect public safety."
"However, it should be understood by all, at home and abroad, that this is an exceptional circumstance and should not be perceived as the standard U.S. policy for dealing with errant satellites," he said. "The House Armed Services Committee will work closely with the Department of Defense and other concerned agencies to oversee the broader policy implications of this action in relation to our space assets."