U.S. NAVY / 2003
A missile is launched in a test from the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie off Kauai.
Military officials are hoping a missile has erased the danger posed by a satellite
STORY SUMMARY »
A missile shot from a Pearl Harbor-based ship knocked out a crippled spy satellite yesterday that would have posed a deadly threat if it had crashed in a populated area.
Pentagon officials said the USS Lake Erie, armed with an SM-3 missile, launched the attack at 5:26 p.m. and smashed its target 130 miles above the Pacific.
Defense officials said the shot apparently destroyed the on-board fuel tank that was carrying 1,000 pounds of hydrazine. The fuel, unused because the satellite died shortly after reaching orbit in December 2006, could have been hazardous if it landed in a populated area.
A spokesman for state Civil Defense said the agency is waiting to hear from FEMA about any possible impact of debris from the destroyed satellite. On its Web site www.scd.hawaii.gov, the state agency has posted a "Hazard Awareness Plan for Space Vehicle Re-entry Impact," in the "very slight" chance that some of the debris falls near Hawaii, spokesman Ray Lovell said. He said if FEMA warns that satellite debris poses a threat to the islands, the state will activate its emergency broadcast system.
FULL STORY »
WASHINGTON » A missile launched from a Pearl Harbor-based Navy cruiser soared 130 miles above the Pacific and smashed a dying and potentially deadly U.S. spy satellite yesterday, the Pentagon said. Two defense officials said it apparently achieved the main aim of destroying an on-board tank of toxic fuel.
Officials had expressed cautious optimism that the missile would hit the satellite, which was the size of a school bus. But they were less certain of hitting the smaller, more worrisome fuel tank, whose contents posed what Bush administration officials deemed a potential health hazard to humans if it landed intact. Left alone, the satellite would have been expected to hit Earth during the first week of March.
In a statement announcing the attack on the satellite, the Pentagon said, "Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours."
It made no mention of early indications, but two defense officials close to the situation said later that it appeared the fuel tank was hit. One said observers saw what appeared to be an explosion, indicating that the tank was hit.
Because the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude at the time it was hit by the missile, debris will begin to re-enter Earth's atmosphere immediately, the Pentagon statement 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," it said.
The USS Lake Erie, armed with an SM-3 missile designed to knock down incoming missiles -- not orbiting satellites -- launched the attack at 5:26 p.m., according to the Pentagon. It hit the satellite about three minutes later as the spacecraft traveled in polar orbit at more than 17,000 mph.
Two other warships involved were the destroyers USS Russell, also based at Pearl Harbor, and the USS Decatur from San Diego.
The Lake Erie was equipped with two SM-3 missiles, the Pentagon official said. The Decatur was positioned close enough to the Lake Erie to step in if something went wrong. The Russell was used to help with telemetry, the Pentagon added.
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 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 while en route from Washington.
At 5:35 p.m., Gates spoke to both generals again and "was informed that the mission was a success, that the missile had intercepted the decaying satellite, and the secretary was obviously very pleased to learn that," said Morrell.
Gates was to meet with reporters this morning where the Russell is berthed at Pearl Harbor.
The launch of the Navy missile amounted to an unprecedented use of components of the Pentagon's missile defense system, which is designed to shoot down hostile ballistic missiles in flight -- not kill satellites.
During a brief stop at Hickam Officers Club, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that countries were alerted to the possible elevation in military activity with the U.S. shooting down a satellite.
"What we've tried to do from the beginning is be as open as possible about the intention," he said. "We've been very transparent.
"This is a system that is not designed for this capability. We actually had to modify this system in order to take this shot."
The missile alone cost nearly $10 million, and officials estimated that the total cost of the project was at least $30 million.