Gates has final say on killing satellite
The defense secretary comes to Hawaii as the Navy prepares to intercept a spacecraft
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The Pearl Harbor-based USS Lake Erie faces difficulties when it tries to shoot down a crippled U.S. spy satellite over the Pacific Ocean as early as this afternoon.
Although the Lake Erie has done well in shooting down missiles in tests off Kauai, the cruiser must hit the small fuel tank aboard the spacecraft to eliminate the toxic fuel that could injure or even kill people if it reached Earth.
The Navy missile uses a heat-seeking system to zero in on its target and a Pentagon official said software changes have been made to compensate for the lack of heat on the satellite.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be in Hawaii today and will give the order to shoot down the satellite, a Pentagon spokesman told the Associated Press.
Left alone, the satellite would be expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft would be expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere, scattering debris over several hundred miles.
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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will be in Hawaii this afternoon as sailors on the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Lake Erie attempt to shoot down a crippled U.S. spy satellite.
The Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates was briefed on the plan yesterday by the two officers who will advise him on exactly when to launch the missile -- Gen. Kevin Chilton, the head of Strategic Command, and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who held Chilton's post until last summer.
"We all have an agreed-upon series of steps that need to be taken for this launch to be given the go-ahead," Morrell said, adding that no final decision had been made on when to make the attempt.
"The secretary is the one who will decide if and when to pull the trigger," the spokesman said.
The Associated Press reported that the government issued notices to aviators and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific west of the islands beginning at 5:30 p.m. Hawaii time, indicating the first window of opportunity to launch an SM-3 missile from the Lake Erie.
Gates was scheduled to be here today to visit with senior military leaders. He will meet with reporters tomorrow morning on the destroyer USS Russell, one of nine Pacific Fleet warships equipped with the Aegis anti-missile defense system. Gates is stopping here before beginning a nine-day trip to Australia, Indonesia, India and Turkey.
The Lake Erie has been able to hit drone missiles nine out of 11 tries. In its most recent attempt, in November, the Navy warship fired two missiles and intercepted two drones.
There have been 12 missile intercepts in 14 attempts using the SM-3 missile and the Aegis defense system since 2002 off the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the west coast of Kauai.
A program to adapt the missile for this anti-satellite mission was completed in weeks.
Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite is well below the altitude of a normal satellite. The Pentagon wants to hit it with an SM-3 missile just before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere, in that way minimizing the amount of debris that would remain in space.
Adding to the difficulty of the mission, the missile will have to do better than just hit the bus-sized satellite, a Navy official said yesterday. It needs to strike the relatively small fuel tank aboard the spacecraft to accomplish the main goal, which is to eliminate the toxic fuel that could injure or even kill people if it reached Earth.
The Navy official described technical aspects of the missile's capabilities on condition that he not be identified.
Also complicating the effort will be the satellite's lack of a heat-generating propulsion system. That makes it more difficult for the Navy missile's heat-seeking system to work, although the official said software changes had been made to compensate for the lack of heat.
Star-Bulletin reporter Gregg K. Kakesako and the Associated Press contributed to this report.