US missile hits spy satellite

A missile from a United States navy warship hit a defunct US spy satellite 247km above the Earth in an attempt to blow apart its tank of toxic fuel, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

It was too soon to tell if the fuel tank had been shattered in the operation over the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon said in a statement, but a senior military source said initial indications suggested that goal had been achieved.

The SM-3 missile was fired from the USS Lake Erie in the Pacific at about 10:26pm Eastern Standard Time (EST), the Pentagon said in a statement.

”A network of land, air, sea and space-based sensors confirms that the US military intercepted a non-functioning national reconnaissance office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the Earth’s atmosphere,” it said.

”Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours,” the statement said.

The senior military source said the missile hit the satellite about three minutes after launch.

”There’s a good indication that the fuel tank was hit because there was an explosion,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington says its aim is to prevent harm to humans from the satellite’s tank of hazardous hydrazine fuel. Russia and China have expressed concern, with Moscow suggesting the operation could be used as cover to test a new space weapon.

The missile hit the 2 270kg, bus-sized satellite as it travelled through space at more than 27 400km/h, the Pentagon said.

”Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere immediately,” it added.

”Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24/48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days.”

Gates gave green light

During a flight from Washington to Hawaii, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates authorised the navy to fire the missile, about 10 hours before the operation was carried out, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Commanders informed him the mission had been a success nine minutes after the satellite was hit, Morrell said.

”The secretary was obviously very pleased to learn that,” Morrell told reporters in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Pentagon has said the stray spacecraft was a test satellite for the national reconnaissance office, a US intelligence agency, launched in December 2006.

It stopped communicating within a few hours of reaching orbit, Pentagon officials have said.

Some space experts have questioned the Pentagon’s justification for the mission, saying the chances of any part of the satellite causing harm were extremely remote.

But Pentagon officials have denied suggestions they wanted to destroy the satellite to prevent part of the classified spacecraft from falling into the hands of rival powers.

They have insisted the only concern was that the 450kg fuel tank could survive largely intact and release toxic gas.

The Pentagon has said the operation would use modified elements of its missile defence system.

But officials have sought to avoid presenting this mission as a test for that system, saying hitting a satellite is quite different from trying to shoot down a missile.

The Pentagon said it would provide further information about the operation at a news briefing at 7am EST on Thursday. – Reuters

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