Weather May Delay Shootdown of Satellite

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The Pentagon says bad weather in the north Pacific makes it unlikely that a Navy ship will launch a missile Wednesday in an attempt to shoot down a wayward U.S. spy satellite in space.

A Pentagon official who briefed reporters on technical aspects of the decision on when to make the shootdown attempt said high seas currently are an obstacle for the Navy ship that would fire the missile.

But the official also said no decision has been made yet to scrap the mission, and if the weather improves during the course of the day the launch could go forward. He added that other factors, including the orientation of the satellite in its polar orbit, could influence a decision on the timing of the shootdown effort.

Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite is out of control and 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. Officials believe hitting the satellite in this manner will minimize the remaining debris.

If nothing was done, officials think the satellite would strike the planet around the first week in March. Almost half of the 5,000-pound instrument would be expected to survive the fiery reentry through the Earth's atmosphere. Debris would be scattered over an area of several hundred miles.

Heat-Seeking Missile vs. Non-Heat Generating Target

If the attempt is made, a U.S. Navy heat-seeking missile will be used to try and destroy a crippled U.S. spy satellite before it falls back to Earth.

The targeting of the satellite may come late Wednesday night.

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 Tuesday. It needs to strike the relatively small fuel tank aboard the spacecraft in order 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 fact that the satellite has no heat-generating propulsion system on board. 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.

President Approves Action

President Bush has already approved the action due to the concern about toxic fuel on board the satellite. But some see this as an exercise in defending the nation against long-range missiles or targeting satellites in orbit. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the U.S. action is meant to protect people from the hazardous fuel and is not a weapons test.

The three-stage Navy missile has had a high success rate in a series of tests that began in 2002. In each of the tests, the missle targeted a short- or medium-range ballistic missile. The weapon has never been used to shoot down a satellite. In a rush program, the Navy adapted the missile for the anti-satellite mission in only a matter of weeks.

The government issued warnings to pilots and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific Ocean beginning at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday. This may be the first opportunity to fire an adapted SM-3 missile from the USS Lake Erie, a Navy cruiser at the descending satellite.

Source: Associated Press

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