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US Plans to Shoot Down Disabled Spy Satellite


The Defense Department says it is planning to shoot down a defunct U.S. spy satellite before it is expected to hit the Earth in early March, because of potential danger to human beings from its unburned rocket fuel. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffries told reporters at the Pentagon the decision to intercept the broken U.S. spy satellite was made by President Bush to reduce the danger to humans.

"If the satellite did fall in a populated area, there was a possibility of death or injury to human beings beyond that associated with the fall of satellites and other space objects normally, if we can use that word," he said. "Specifically, there was enough of a risk for the president to be quite concerned about human life. And on that basis, he asked us to review our options."

Jeffries said the risk of falling satellite parts hitting and injuring people is minimal. He said satellites and other space objects have been crashing to Earth for the past 30 years and no one has ever been injured. He said what is different about this small bus-sized satellite is that it still contains a full tank of the toxic rocket fuel hydrazine, which could case harm to someone who came into close and extended contact with it.

The surveillance satellite was launched in December 2006, but lost all contact with ground control within hours and has been considered a "dead" satellite ever since. Information about the satellite is classified, but it is believed to be the first of a new generation of smaller and more precise spy satellites.

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, said a Navy Standard 3 missile will be launched from a ship to target the satellite. He said the "window of opportunity" for such a shootdown would begin in the next three or four days and last for seven or eight days. He said the objective is to hit the fuel tank and break it up in space, and to bring down the pieces of the satellite in an unpopulated area. He said if the initial missile misses its target, a decision will be made whether to take a second shot.

Some military experts say the Pentagon may be worried the satellite's top secret spy technology might survive reentry into the atmosphere and end up in the wrong hands. General Cartwright rejected that speculation.

"There is some question about the classified side of this," he said. "That is really not an issue. Once you go through the atmosphere, and the heating and the burning, that would not be an issue in this case. It would not justify using a missile to take it and break it up further."

Taking down the satellite is a sensitive issue because of the controversy sparked when China shot down one of its defunct weather satellites last year, drawing criticism from the United States and other countries. The Pentagon said it has briefed other countries about its plans.