So, this is perhaps good news, if true — at least for those who were worried about dangers from falling debris.
But it might be bad news for U.S. – Russian relations…
Just a couple of hours after a total lunar eclipse, the U.S. Navy reported it managed to shoot down the falling American satellite — on the first try.
[A second specially-souped-up missile was on-site, if needed, and a third was being transported to the site by another U.S. Navy ship]
The missile flew 130 miles before apparently hitting its target, according to the Washington Post, in a report published here. It was apparently, a three-stage missile, and not a two-stage missile as previously reported — would this make it nearly an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile? But, if so, it would be an ICBM without an explosive warhead, see CNN story below. [Nevertheless, in this case, the U.S. may really be testing Russia’s patience to the limit — the U.S. withdrew from its bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, despite Russia’s strong and repeated objections, in June 2001. The ABM treaty limits ballistic missile deployment areas and any qualitative improvements in the missile technology.]
The paper reports, cryptically, that the Navy will now dismantle the other two specially-modified missiles.
The WPost added that “The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates — not a military commander — made the decision to pull the trigger. Gates had arrived in Hawaii a few hours before the missile was launched. He was there to begin a round-the-world trip, not to monitor the missile operation. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters traveling with Gates that the defense chief gave the go-ahead at 1:40 p.m. EST while en route from Washington”.
CNN reported that “A network of land-, air-, sea- and space-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the Earth’s atmosphere,” a Department of Defense statement said. ‘At approximately 10:26 p.m. EST today, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie, fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph’. It was unknown whether the missile hit its precise target — the satellite’s full fuel tank. The Department of Defense said it wouldn’t know for certain for 24 hours whether the fuel tank had been hit. However, several defense officials told The Associated Press the missile did apparently destroy the fuel tank. ‘Debris will begin to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere immediately’, the department said. ‘Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days’. However, even if the missile didn’t score a direct hit, ‘any kind of hit provides a much better outcome than doing nothing at all’, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The missile didn’t carry a warhead, with authorities saying the impact was expected to be sufficient to destroy the fuel tank. Navy gunners had just a 10-second window to fire …the 10-second window would have occurred on each of the next nine or 10 days … One Pentagon official said that since early January, a team including 200 industry experts and scientists had worked furiously to modify the Aegis air-defense missile system so it could shoot down the satellite. Among the team’s challenges was modifying the sensors designed to detect the heat from an incoming warhead, as the satellite will be much cooler. The missile was to release a ‘kinetic kill vehicle’, enabling it to ‘see’ the satellite and adjust its course toward it if necessary, officials said. This CNN story is here.
The same CNN story added that “In 1989, a U.S. fighter jet destroyed a U.S. satellite by firing a modified air-to-air missile into space from an altitude of 80,000 feet. That adds to evidence that the U.S. acted Wednesday strictly to guard against the prospect of a potential disaster, said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff”.
CNN also reported in another story that “The last total lunar eclipse until 2010 occurs Wednesday night, with cameo appearances by Saturn and the bright star Regulus on either side of the veiled full moon…Wednesday’s total eclipse phase will last nearly an hour. It will begin around 7 p.m. on the West Coast and 10 p.m. on the East Coast. West Coast skygazers will miss the start of the eclipse because it occurs before the moon rises”. The CNN report on the total lunar eclipse is here.
The Associated Press noted that “The [U.S.] government organized hazardous materials teams, under the code name ‘Burnt Frost’, to be flown to the site of any dangerous or otherwise sensitive debris that might land in the United States or elsewhere”. This AP report is here.
A story on Space.com suggests that some of the falling debris might be visible: ” ‘There is a possibility that if someone were to have clear skies in the Pacific Northwest or Canada, they might see some of the debris’, said Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. ‘We just don’t know. If the debris does enter the atmosphere then it’s actually quite possible to see it anywhere along the ground track of the satellite’. Because only two satellites have been shot down before, each under unique conditions [apparently, these would be the January 2007 Chinese test on one of its own “weather” satellites, and the previously-obscure 1989 event noted in the CNN story above], experts don’t have much experience to go on in predicting what to expect … The satellite’s path will take it east from Hawaii to the northwestern U.S. and British Columbia, then over the whole of Canada, down across the Atlantic, over West Africa, and back over the south Atlantic. The actual impact will not be visible to anyone, because it will occur over Hawaii during daylight, Chester said. Even if the Department of Defense does not attempt to shoot down the satellite tonight, all future attempts will also be during daylight over Hawaii”. This report is posted here.
Another story on Space.com gives some interesting analysis of this event: ” ‘The spy agency doesn’t want some part of the satellite to fall into the wrong hands,” said Coyle [former assistant secretary of defense Philip Coyle], now a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. ‘I don’t think that’s being emphasized enough as a motivation for NRO to want this thing to be shot down’. [That might be because all American officials are denying it, and saying that the only intent is to save human life, which might be at risk if the fuel tank survives re-entry intact. It is apparently full, as the satellite misfunctioned immediately after being launched, and it contains substances that would be toxic if inhaled…] In order of importance to the NRO, Coyle named two other reasons for the attempted shoot-down: ‘Number two, poke the Chinese, because we’re showing them not only that we can shoot down a satellite in a test without creating a lot of debris like they did. But we’re also showing them we can do it any place in the world, because we’re doing it from the ocean‘, Coyle said, referring to a similar satellite destruction by the Chinese. ‘And a third reason is to show off our missile-defense capabilities such as this, though this is much easier than hitting an enemy warhead’ … Coyle, the former Defense Department official, doesn’t think the hydrazine tank is a big enough safety issue in the first place, stating that the U.S. produces about 36 million pounds (about 16 million kilograms) of hydrazine each year. ‘If we’re so worried about hydrazine we oughtn’t to be trucking it around on U.S. highways and on rail cars the way we do, if that’s really our concern’, Coyle told SPACE.com … The satellite and missile would close on one another at a velocity of about 22,783 mph (36,667 kph). Hitting the bus-sized target is just half the battle. To be completely successful, the missile must also destroy the satellite’s fuel tank, which holds about 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of toxic hydrazine. Pentagon officials have argued that if the satellite were to fall through the atmosphere with no missile interference the hydrazine tank could survive the fiery descent to reach Earth’s surface intact, spewing toxic gas over an area about the size of two football fields. Those who inhaled it would need medical attention. ‘In this case, we have some historical background that we can work against for the tank that contains the hydrazine’, said Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright during a Feb. 14 press briefing. ‘We had a similar one on Columbia that survived re-entry. We have a pretty reasonable understanding that, if the tank is left intact, it would survive the re-entry’. However, destroying the fuel tank and dispersing the hydrazine requires a direct hit on the possibly tumbling satellite. The high closing speeds for the satellite intercept and the uncertainty of puncturing the fuel tank could make that goal questionable, according to an analysis done by Geoffrey Forden, an MIT physicist and space expert. ‘If they do shoot at it, even if they hit it, there’s just a 30 percent chance that the shrapnel connected by the intersection hits the hydrazine tank’, Forden said … The attempted shoot down of the satellite will undoubtedly send a political message. Both Russia and China have expressed concerns regarding the U.S. attempt, with Russia labeling it a weapons test of the missile defense system. ‘The timing of it is very interesting, coming after [the Russia-China] proposal on banning space weapons’, said Roger Launius, National Air and Space Museum senior curator. He added that the U.S. attempt could be a response to China’s anti-satellite test last year that ‘we can do this too’, and take out satellites if necessary. ‘The potential political cost of shooting down this satellite is high’, said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Global Security Program. ‘Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon is counterproductive to U.S. long-term interests, given that the United States has the most to gain from an international space weapons ban. Instead, it should be taking the lead in negotiating a treaty’. A U.S. attempt that fails to destroy the satellite could also send a message – although not one the U.S. would like. China and the rest of the world could assume the miss was a fluke, or they could also see failure as evidence that the U.S. technological lead in space has declined, according to Launius Forden calculated the risks of the hydrazine tank killing or injuring someone at 3.5 percent if it survived re-entry. However, he stated his belief that the political consequences of the attempted shoot-down could be worse, by further opening up the international arena for future anti-satellite tests and possible conflict in space. ‘You have to weigh the chance of [the satellite] killing or injuring someone against legitimizing China’s ASAT [anti-satellite] test’, Forden said … The future of space as a battlefield could mean clouds of debris from destroyed satellites. That would add to some 17,000-plus objects that are already being tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for the past 45 years, the average number of cataloged object re-entries has been one per day. ‘Stuff will hang up there until gravity brings it down’, noted Launius. ‘If you get enough of that up there, just getting through it could be an issue for mission launches’.” This interesting Space.com analysis is posted here.
By purest coincidence, this event coincides with the launch of a new website at the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva here — specifically on matters relating to the Conference on Disarmament, where China and Russia have been lobbying for years for the launch of talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and the U.S. has been refusing. The website launch was announced by email on Wednesday 20 February.
As the first CNN story mentioned above reported today, “The military timed its shootdown attempt so that resulting debris would tumble into the atmosphere and not interfere with other satellites, said Christina Rocca, a U.S. diplomat and expert on disarmament. Her comments were included in an online United Nations report on this month’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. The military also timed its efforts to minimize the chances that debris would hit populated areas. But the United States is ‘prepared to offer assistance to governments to mitigate the consequences of any satellite debris impacts on their territory’, according to a report of Rocca’s remarks on the Web site of the Geneva office of the UN”. This CNN story is posted here.
See Ambassador Christina Rocca’s fascinating 15 February statement to the Conference on Disarmament plenary meeting on this then-impending satellite shoot-down — where she says: “We have recently modified three SM-3 missiles and three U.S. Navy ships to perform this mission … Our transparency in notifying foreign governments and the broader international community is consistent with our commitment to safe and responsible space operations. This extraordinary engagement is an emergency response to prevent the possible loss of life. This engagement is not part of an anti-satellite development and testing program, we do not intend to retain the technical capability resulting from the modifications required to carry out the engagement.” — here.