Thursday, February 21, 2008

U.S. Strikes Falling Satellite, Displays Missile Defense Capabilities

The United States Navy reports successfully striking a rogue spy satellite with missile defense technology, according to the New York Times:

Just hours after a Navy missile interceptor struck a dying spy satellite orbiting 130 miles over the Pacific Ocean, a senior military officer expressed high confidence early Thursday that a tank filled with toxic rocket fuel had been breached.

Video of the unusual operation showed the missile leaving a bright trail as it streaked toward the satellite, and then a flash, a fireball, a plume and a cloud as the interceptor, at a minimum, appeared to have found its target, a satellite that went dead shortly after being launched in 2006.

“We’re very confident that we hit the satellite,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright of the Marines, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank.”

General Cartwright cautioned that despite visual and spectral evidence that the hydrazine rocket fuel had been dispersed, it could take 24 to 48 hours before the Pentagon could announce with full confidence that the mission was a success. Even so, he said the military had 80 to 90 percent confidence the fuel tank was breached.

The fuel tank aboard the satellite was believed strong enough to survive the fiery re-entry through the atmosphere, and officials expressed concerns that the toxic fuel could pose a hazard to populated areas.

General Cartwright said debris from the strike, with individual pieces no larger than a football, already had begun to re-enter the atmosphere. Most, he said, was predicted to fall into the ocean.

Even so, the State Department was alerting American embassies around the world so they could keep their host governments informed, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had put out instructions to first responders across the United States about steps to take should hazardous debris fall in populated areas.

The first international reaction came from China, where the government objected on Thursday to the American missile strike, warning that the United States Navy’s action could threaten security in outer space.

The Chinese and other critics have alleged that today's shoot-down was nothing more than a tit-for-tat display of U.S. force, a political-strategic response to China's own blustery satellite take-down last year:

American officials were critical of China last year for using an anti-satellite weapon to destroy a satellite in a much higher orbit in January 2007 and then refusing to confirm the test for nearly two weeks. The Chinese test produced 1,600 pieces of debris that are expected to orbit the Earth for years, preventing other spacecraft from using the same or similar orbits.

During a Pentagon news conference Thursday morning, General Cartwright rebuffed those who said the mission was, at least in part, organized to showcase American missile defense or anti-satellite capabilities.

He said the missile itself had to be reconfigured from its task of tracking and hitting an adversary’s warhead to instead find a cold, tumbling satellite. “This was a one-time modification,” General Cartwright said.

Sensors from the American missile defense system were an important part of this mission, though, he said.

He stressed that “the intent here was to preserve human life,” but also acknowledged that “the technical degree of difficulty was significant” and the accomplishment earned cheers from personnel in command centers across the military, as well.

Completing a mission in which an interceptor designed for missile defense was used for the first time to attack a satellite, the Lake Erie, an Aegis-class cruiser, fired a single missile just before 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, and the missile hit the satellite as it traveled at more than 17,000 miles per hour, the Pentagon said in its official announcement.

As they say, missile defense technology essentially seeks to hit a moving space vehicle like a "bullet hitting a bullet."

It's a massive feat of military technology, and a good round of U.S. hegemonic chest thumping is rightly in order.