— -- The Navy not only succeeded in knocking a falling spy satellite out of the sky 130 miles up, but officials believe the missile interceptor struck the satellite's fuel tank, destroying the toxic goo before it could fall to Earth.
"We have a hit!" was the radio message transmitted to the Pentagon three minutes after the missile was launched.
Several cameras trained on the satellite known as USA 193 saw it immediately reduced to a cloud of shards.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that after the collision between the satellite and the missile there was nothing left that was "larger than a football." This is much smaller than had been anticipated because the military expected that half of the satellite might remain after impact.
Most important, however, is the Navy's near certainty that the $10 million SM3 missile with a specially altered tracking system hit the bus-size satellite in its fuel tank, which contained 1,000 pounds of highly toxic hydrazine fuel. The Defense Department was particularly concerned that the fuel be destroyed so it couldn't fall to Earth.
"I would tell you that from watching and participating, that we're ... 80 [percent to] 90 percent sure that the tank was breached," Cartwright said.
"The high-definition imagery we have indicates that we hit the spacecraft right in the area of the tank," he said. There was additional evidence that the missile was a perfect strike.
"We have a fireball and given that there's no fuel, that indicates … a hydrazine fire," he said. In addition, the presence of a vapor cloud and spectral analysis of the cloud shows that it is hydrazine, Cartwright said.
"Any one of those as a stand alone is not a smoking gun, so we're putting the pieces together," he said and added that it could take an additional 48 hours to provide conclusive evidence that the tank was destroyed.
The satellite began decelerating into the atmosphere shortly after the intercept. There has been debris re-entry over the Atlantic and the Pacific, but so far nothing has hit Earth.
It is anticipated that half of the satellite's debris will fall to Earth over the next 24 hours to 48 hours and the remainder should re-enter within 40 days. The Pentagon continues to track the debris to see where it will land.
Should any large pieces of debris make it to the ground, special teams are on alert and positioned within the U.S. Pacific Command, said Navy. Adm. Timothy J. Keating.
The missile was launched at 10:26 p.m. Eastern Time from the from the deck of the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie which was stationed 500 miles northwest of Hawaii.
The mission was carried out even though indications earlier in the day had been that rough seas in the Pacific might prevent a launch. Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed off on the mission Wednesday afternoon as the weather continued to improve.
At the time Gates was enroute to Hawaii on his way to a visit to Australia and Indonesia. Later Thursday, he visited the destroyer USS Russell, one of the three Navy ships assigned to help track the satellite and its debris.
The elaborate intercept triggered worries from some international leaders who feared it was a thinly disguised attempt to test an anti-satellite weapon one that could take out other nation's orbiting communications and spy spacecraft.
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."
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen brushed off those concerns, saying the shoot down does not threaten any country and is not a new space race with any country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report