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US Prepares to Shoot Falling Satellite Late Wednesday

U.S. naval forces west of Hawaii are preparing to try to shoot down a falling American satellite, with their first attempt expected late Wednesday. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The Navy will use its new anti-missile capability, which is still under development, to try to shoot down the satellite as it approaches the earth's atmosphere. Three missiles and their targeting systems have been specially modified for the job, but officials say only one will be fired at a time. Three U.S. Navy ships have been deployed for the operation.

A Navy official who spoke on condition of anonymity says this assignment will be more difficult than the already challenging task of shooting down an incoming ballistic missile. The official says that is because the satellite's engine has failed so it has no heat source for the warhead to seek, and because it is flying somewhat higher and much faster than a missile would be.

Still, senior officers express confidence they will be able to hit the satellite and destroy its tank of hydrazine fuel, which officials say could be dangerous if it falls to earth. The U.S. government has issued a warning to aviators and mariners for a two-and-a-half hour period starting at 0230 UTC Thursday morning, which will be Wednesday afternoon Hawaii time. By coincidence, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be in Hawaii around that time on the first leg of a trip to Asia, Australia and Europe.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says Secretary Gates will make the final decision on whether to try to shoot down the satellite, even if the operation happens while he is traveling.

"Secretary Gates has been empowered by President Bush to order the shoot-down," he said. "And based upon the advice he gets, he is prepared to do so from the road if necessary."

If no shot is taken Wednesday, or if it misses or only partially destroys the satellite, officials say they can make up to two more attempts before the satellite hits the atmosphere. They have not said exactly what the timing would be. If the satellite remains untouched, they say most of it will burn up as it enters the atmosphere, but they are concerned about the fuel tank and some other pieces possibly hitting the earth.

"We have a pretty wide aperture in which to take this shot, and I think that the commanders who are evaluating this are looking at all the conditions that could impact this to make sure that when we do take this shot it can be as successful as possible," Morrell said.

The satellite stopped communicating with controllers on earth shortly after it was launched 14 months ago, and it went into a deteriorating orbit.

The Navy official who spoke Tuesday called the effort to shoot down the satellite a "pretty significant" technological challenge. He said several sophisticated radar systems will be used to try to direct the warhead to a collision with the satellite while it is still in outer space. Officials say the combined closing speed of the two objects could be more than 30,000 kilometers per hour, and they will be about 250 kilometers above the earth.

The Navy officer says sailors on the three ships will direct the effort and launch the missiles, but he says once each missile is launched, it is guided by computers during its approximately 1.5-minute flight. These missiles do not carry an explosive charge, but rather a half-meter long warhead made mainly of very hard titanium that is designed to destroy its target by the force of its impact.

The Pentagon says it will announce a missile firing within an hour after it happens, and should have a preliminary assessment of the results of the attempt within a few hours after that.

China and Russia have both criticized the U.S. plan. On Saturday, Russia's Defense Ministry said the United States is using the problem with the satellite to test the ability of its missile defense system to take on an anti-satellite mission. The Navy official who spoke Tuesday denied that, saying the Navy has not been tasked to develop such a capability.

Earlier, China had criticized the U.S. plan, noting that the United States had complained about the Chinese shoot-down of one of its old satellites over a year ago. U.S. officials say the two incidents are not comparable because China was specifically testing an anti-satellite weapon and because the malfunctioning U.S. satellite is in a much lower orbit than working satellites use.