Weather Thwarts High-Tech Satellite Shoot Down

Despite high-tech missiles, satellite shot is dependent on weather.


Feb. 20, 2008 — -- The Navy is confident that its high-tech missile cannot only intercept a rogue satellite hurtling at a startling 22,000 mph, but that it can strike the bus-size satellite right in its gas tank.

That is, if the weather clears up.

Initially, officials said that stormy seas in Pacific could cause a delay in shooting down a crippled spy satellite. But a defense official told ABC News Wednesday that because of "improving" weather, "things are looking better."

Two cruisers are waiting to launch a satellite-bound missile off the coast of Hawaii.

But the weather improvement doesn't mean the missile will definitely be launched tonight, according to the official. Another change in the weather could affect whether to proceed with a launch at any point.

The shoot down, which is likely to happen before Feb. 29, will have a narrow window of opportunity each day in Hawaii -- literally a matter of seconds.

The Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie is already in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles west of the Hawaiian Islands. As the primary ship in the mission, it is carrying two SM3 missiles with specially modified tracking systems to hit the satellite 120 miles above Earth. The destroyer USS Decatur is en route to join the Lake Erie with another backup missile. The USS Russell will remain in its home port of Pearl Harbor to assist with tracking.

The missile is now being tracked by the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Once the satellite is hit, Northern Command in Colorado will track the debris in an attempt to determine how big the pieces are and where they will land. The military will also be looking to see whether the fuel tank has been destroyed.

The satellite is considered a cold target, and technicians will have to rely on the sun's energy to heat the satellite just enough to produce a heat signature that the missile's infrared heat sensors can easily target. The tip of the interceptor nose cone also carries optical equipment that helps it lock onto the target.

The satellite will travel at a much faster rate of speed than any of the missiles intercepted in past years of testing. Nevertheless, the Navy believes the missile can be maneuvered to hit the satellite precisely on its sphere-size tank carrying the toxic fuel hydrazine.

The Pentagon won't provide advance warning of the shoot-down attempt, but within an hour of an interception the Department of Defense will issue a statement announcing the launch, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday.

According to Morrell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will make the final launch decision. Gates leaves Wednesday night for a trip to India, Indonesia and Australia, and is prepared to make the decision from the road.

"The president has made a decision about how he wants to deal with the threat -- the potential threat posed by this dying satellite and the hydrazine it carries in its tank. Now, with that decision made, the secretary is the one who will decide if and when to pull the trigger -- pardon the term -- on the missile launch," Morrell told reporters.

The Defense Department said the purpose of the shoot down is prevent chunks of the 5,000-pound satellite or any of its highly toxic fuel from raining down on cities or towns. But the $74 million mission has been dogged by doubts that the satellite poses any real danger, and that the true purpose is to test the Pentagon's ability to hit an enemy's satellite. The Pentagon denies that the attempted shoot down is a camouflaged weapons test.

Debris from an intercepted satellite could also affect astronauts living on the International Space Station.

The planned hit will take place when the satellite is orbiting just above Earth's atmosphere, so that most of the debris from the missile's destruction would fall out of orbit in just a few days, rather than continuing to orbit in space where it could be a hazard to the International Space Station and future shuttle flights.

If any debris does get close to the space station, flight controllers will move the orbiting outpost out of the way. They have done so six times in the space station's 10 years in orbit.

NASA'S Mission Control starts studying the possibility of performing a collision avoidance maneuver when the chance of collision reaches one in 100,000. NASA has an orbital debris group that is on call 24 hours a day if a satellite breaks up in orbit. It has put the odds of a collision with debris from the rogue satellite at one in 50,000 for the space station.

Gina Sunseri. contributed additional reporting.

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