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Motives in Shooting Down Satellite Questioned

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Motives in Shooting Down Satellite Questioned

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Motives in Shooting Down Satellite Questioned

Motives in Shooting Down Satellite Questioned

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In Depth

Learn about the nuts and bolts of shooting down a satellite.

A Navy warship shot down a dying American spy satellite that was due to crash to Earth. The Pentagon said it feared if the satellite hit the ground and ruptured, it would release a toxic gas. But some think the Pentagon had an ulterior motive in shooting down the satellite.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This was the order to a U.S. Navy ship overnight: fire a missile into space and smash a satellite the size of a school bus. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the order. The target was a spy satellite. It would've fallen out of orbit carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to tell us what happened instead. And Tom, how did the missile strike go?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon is saying it was very successful. A single missile from the USS Lake Erie shot down the satellite. And it appears, according to a senior defense official, that the fuel tank has been destroyed, and that was the main concern. There's a lot of hydrazine in the fuel tank.

And the fear was the tank would fall to the ground, rupture, and turn into a toxic gas, which could damage lungs and the skin, similar to a chlorine gas. But again, they say now the fuel tank has been destroyed.

INSKEEP: Although, Tom, if you followed this story in the media the last few days, you'd hear lots of speculation that the Pentagon had some other motive. So first I want to ask, is it known how dangerous that fuel really was?

BOWMAN: Well, not very dangerous. They said you would have to stand over it and breathe it for quite some time to really have a problem with it. Again, it dissipates pretty quickly, so the health concern was pretty minimal. Obviously most of the world is water, covered with water, and a very small percentage of the land mass is populated. Some thought that the chances of this falling in a populated area were about three-and-a-half percent.

INSKEEP: Okay. Well, if the odds of some dangerous problem were not that great, that does lead to this question about whether the Pentagon was trying to accomplish something else. Maybe testing missile defense equipment, maybe something else?

BOWMAN: Well, most people believe that the reason they shot it down was they didn't want pieces of this satellite falling into the wrong hands, meaning the Chinese or the Russians. It's a highly sophisticated imagery satellite, meaning it takes pictures, high resolution pictures. So the computers, some of the gadgets aboard, they didn't want someone finding those and maybe reverse engineering those or trying to find out how it works and using it in their own systems.

INSKEEP: So it's a protective move perhaps.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Well, now, what is the difference then between this shoot-down and China's decision to shoot down a defunct weather satellite last year, which is a move the United States criticized?

BOWMAN: Right. Well - and China's effort was to test their own anti-satellite system. This satellite was much higher, maybe 450 miles up into space and it shattered the satellite and sent a lot of debris all over space. So that was the big concern there.

The United States is saying, hey, listen, this is much lower orbit, maybe 130, 150 miles high, we're going to shoot it out of the sky, some of it will fall to Earth and burn on the reentry, maybe some part will also stay in space. But they're saying it's much different here.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Tom, how concerned are Pentagon officials that you talk with about the possibility that the next time there's a war, what's going to happen is countries are going to be shooting each other's satellites down?

BOWMAN: You know, it's funny, I just had dinner with a senior defense official last night and he's very concerned about that. There are over 800 satellites up in the sky; half of them are American. And this official was saying the main concern in the future is how do we care for our satellites, how do we protect them? Do we do it with space-based weapons; do we do it with aircraft?

And he mentioned, for example, when everyone's BlackBerrys went down, what would happen if all the ATMs went down? Not to mention the intelligence satellites. So there's a great deal of concern about it and how do you get your arms around it?

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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Pentagon: Missile Scored Direct Hit on Satellite

Steve Inskeep and Tom Bowman: Motives of the Shooting

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A handout image provided by the U.S. Navy shows the USS Lake Erie launching a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 20, 2008. U.S. Navy/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption U.S. Navy/Getty Images

A handout image provided by the U.S. Navy shows the USS Lake Erie launching a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 20, 2008.

U.S. Navy/Getty Images

The U.S. Navy said Thursday it was tracking debris from a spy satellite it destroyed using a missile fired from an American warship.

The White House ordered the satellite's destruction due to concerns that its onboard fuel supply could pose a toxic hazard if the craft re-entered over a populated area.

The interceptor missile was launched from the Aegis-class cruiser USS Lake Erie off Hawaii at 10:30 p.m. EST. Two other ships, the USS Decatur and USS Russell, were also part of the task force.

The general said the pattern of the satellite's destruction and a spectral analysis indicate the missile hit its target.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an expert on military space technologies, said that officials have a "high degree of confidence" that the missile struck its target: the satellite's fuel tank, containing 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine.

He said the Pentagon was tracking debris from the satellite and had only seen "football" sized chunks, most of which were burning up before reaching the ground.

The interception came nearly one year after the United States sharply criticized China for carrying out a similar test mission. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said his nation was "closely monitoring" the test and its aftermath.

He called on Washington to "strictly abide by its international obligations and quickly provide any information or data that would help other countries to take protective measures."

The classified spy satellite malfunctioned soon after reaching orbit in December 2006. It was due to fall to earth sometime this week.

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