A U.S. Navy cruiser destroyed a disabled spy satellite with a missile strike 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean, defense officials said.
Destroying the satellite's onboard tank of about 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel was the primary goal.
In a statement released after the satellite was shot, the Pentagon said, "Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours." But a short time later, several defense officials close to the situation said it appeared the fuel tank was hit.
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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 the 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.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the missile launch at about 1:40 p.m. EST, while en route from Washington to Hawaii.
Within nine hours - at 10:26 p.m. EST - the USS Lake Erie, fired the SM-3 missile originally designed to knock down incoming missiles rather than orbiting satellites. It hit the satellite about three minutes later as the spacecraft traveled in polar orbit at more than 17,000 mph.
Within hours of the reported success, China said it was on the alert for possible harmful fallout from the shootdown and urged Washington to promptly release data on the action.
"China is continuously following closely the possible harm caused by the U.S. action to outer space security and relevant countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at news conference in Beijing. "China requests the U.S. to fulfill its international obligations in real earnest and provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way so that relevant countries can take precautions."
While Pentagon officials stressed that the satellite strike was a one-time incident, it certainly will spin off massive amounts of data and research that can be studied by the military as it works to improve its missile defense technologies.
The Lake Erie and two other Navy warships, as well as the missile and other components, were modified in a hurry-up project started in January. The missile alone cost nearly $10 million, and officials estimated that the total cost of the project was at least $30 million.
The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Gates - not a military commander down the chain of command - made the decision to pull the trigger.
President Bush approved the strike mission last week, reasoning that it was important to destroy the toxic hydrazine fuel to avert any possible injuries if the satellite landed in a populated area.
The three-stage Navy missile used for the mission has chalked up a high rate of success in a series of tests since 2002, in each case targeting a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, never a satellite. Modifications to the missile for the mission were completed in a matter of weeks, and Navy officials said the changes would be reversed once this satellite was down.
The government issued notices to aviators and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific Ocean beginning at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday.
Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite was out of control and well below the altitude of a normal satellite. The Pentagon determined it should hit it with the missile just before it re-entered Earth's atmosphere, to minimize the amount of debris that would remain in space.
It was estimated that, left on its own, the satellite would have hit Earth during the first week of March. Roughly half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft was expected to survive its fiery descent through the atmosphere and would have scattered debris over several hundred miles.
Source: The Associated Press