Thursday, February 14, 2008

U.S. Plans to Shoot Down Broken Spy Satellite

Washington Post - President Bush, acting on the advice of his national security advisers, has decided to attempt to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite that is expected to crash to Earth early next month, a spokesman for the National Security Council said today.

NSC spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president made the decision within the past week and asked the military to come up with plans to destroy the satellite.

Johndroe said that decision, which will be explained at a Pentagon news conference this afternoon, was based on the fact that the satellite is carrying substantial amounts of a hazardous and corrosive rocket fuel, hydrazine.

The satellite was launched in December 2006 but soon lost contact with ground control. Information about the spacecraft is classified, but experts believe it is the first of a new generation of smaller and more precise spy satellites.

Johndroe said the satellite would be destroyed "as it comes to Earth," which is expected to occur in several weeks.

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. China caused a major international controversy last year when it destroyed an aging satellite, creating large debris fields.

Administration spokesmen including Johndroe earlier minimized the potential danger from the plunging satellite -- saying that similar spacecraft fall, or are bought down, to Earth on a regular basis. Asked about those comments today, he said analysts had concluded that the unused hydrazine did indeed pose a problem and required that the satellite be shot down.

The satellite is believed to be in the 5,000-to-10,000-pound range, small for a spy satellite. It still carries most or all of its fuel because it lost communication with ground control so quickly and was never ordered to conduct a burn of its fuel.

Before today's announcement, many experts in the field said that the danger of anyone being harmed by the falling satellite were extremely small. Much larger spacecraft, including Skylab and the space shuttle Challenger, have fallen to Earth without consequences.