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US Reassuring Governments Worldwide on Satellite Intercept Plans

The United States is contacting governments around the world about its plans to try to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite, expected otherwise to plunge to earth early next month. Officials say the aim is to prevent potential harm to people on the ground from toxic fuel aboard the spacecraft. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

State Department officials say U.S. diplomats around the world have been instructed to contact host governments to reassure them about the pending satellite intercept effort.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific will attempt an unprecedented shoot-down of the crippled spy satellite - said to be the size of a bus - which malfunctioned after its launch in 2006 and its expected to fall out of orbit in early March.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says U.S. embassies will reaffirm that the intercept effort, using a Navy anti-missile system, is aimed at eliminating a threat to people on the ground from rocket fuel aboard the spacecraft.

He said American diplomats will further explain that the exercise is not a space-weapons test, and is qualitatively different from an intercept by China in early 2007 of one of its weather satellites, which left thousands of pieces of debris in orbit.

"This [the Chinese target] was an object already in orbit," McCormack said. "It was designed specifically as a test against the satellite, the ability to kill the satellite. And one of the after-effects of that, of course, was the debris field that it left at that level of orbit, which will be up there for quite some time and could potentially affect the ability to put other satellites or other objects in that orbit."

Pentagon officials say the troubled U.S. spy satellite will be engaged at a much lower orbit than the Chinese satellite - which was more than 600 kilometers from the ground when destroyed.

They say if the missile intercept is successful, most pieces of the American satellite will burn up in the atmosphere within a matter of days.

U.S. scientists say the optimal outcome of the exercise would be destruction of the satellite's tank of dangerous hydrazine fuel, which was to have been expended by orbital steering rockets, but was never used.

The durable, high-pressure tank could be expected to survive the satellite's plunge through the atmosphere and could harm people on the ground.

Some U.S. space experts accuse the Pentagon of trying to seize the opportunity of the satellite malfunction to demonstrate that the Navy's missile-defense system has an anti-satellite capability, and to underline U.S. opposition to calls for a treaty banning the use of weapons in space.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week said that Russia and China were proposing such a treaty, but the idea was rejected by the White House which said ensuring compliance to such an accord would be impossible.