China Protests after U.S. Shoots Down Satellite

With the successful shootdown Wednesday night of a failing spy satellite that was headed for landfall, Pentagon officials say they believe they destroyed the potentially hazardous fuel tank. China is protesting the move, fearing a space-based arms race and debris.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Pentagon believes it accomplished its mission last night, destroying a broken spy satellite and its fuel tank with a missile fired from a Navy warship.

The military had expressed concerns that the satellite could fall to Earth and release toxic gas. Instead, as NPR's Tom Bowman tells us, there was a different kind of fallout today, criticism from China.

TOM BOWMAN: The missile roared off the USS Lake Erie, floating just off Hawaii, climbing more than 130 miles into space, slamming into the picture-taking satellite, which had broken down soon after arriving in space 14 months ago.

Hours later, Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before reporters at the Pentagon.

General JAMES CARTWRIGHT (Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): We're very confident that we hit the satellite. We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank.

BOWMAN: But Pentagon officials won't know for sure for another day or so. They fear the fuel tank full of hydrazine could fall to Earth, rupture, release a toxic gas like chlorine that could damage lungs, sear the skin.

Cartwright showed a video of the exploding satellite. He pointed to a distinctive flash.

Gen. CARTWRIGHT: We have a fireball. And given that there is no fuel, that would indicate that that's a hydrazine fire. We have a vapor cloud that formed. That, again, would be - likely to be the hydrazine.

BOWMAN: Skeptics say there was little chance of any debris hitting a populated area. They say the satellite shootdown had more to do with fears that pieces of the spy satellite would fall into the hands of the Russians or the Chinese, providing those countries with secret technologies.

Cartwright dismissed those claims.

Gen. CARTWRIGHT: As I've said before, that was not enough reason to go after this satellite with a missile. It's the hydrazine that we're focused on.

BOWMAN: Meanwhile, China and Russia protested the shootdown. Both countries are pressing for a treaty that would bar offensive weapons in space. The U.S. has been cool to the idea, with Pentagon officials increasingly worried about how to protect its satellites from possible attacks, and about Chinese actions.

Just last year, China launched a missile and destroyed one of its old weather satellites hundreds of miles into space, creating a large debris field and bringing condemnation from the U.S. and other countries.

Now, China is accusing the U.S. of a double standard, and it worries about a possible arms race in space and falling debris. Here's Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.

Mr. LIU JIANCHAO (Spokesman, Chinese Foreign Ministry): (Through translator) China should closely monitor the possible damage to security in outer space and to other countries by them move of the United States. We demand that the U.S. fulfill its international obligations and swiftly brief the international community with necessary data and information in time, so that relevant countries can take preventive measures.

BOWMAN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Hawaii that the U.S. is prepared to share with China some of the information about the satellite shootdown.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon doesn't know why its picture-taking spy satellite malfunctioned. Possible culprits: an electrical failure, a dead battery, space debris hitting the satellite. Cartwright says the answer may never be known.

Gen. CARTWRIGHT: So a smoking gun, so to speak, on exactly why is something that has eluded us to date just because we can't get any diagnostics to tell us what's going on. It's not responding to Earth. It didn't respond to us.

BLOCK: Officials say the satellite cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was built by a defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Neither the Pentagon nor Lockheed Martin would confirm who built the satellite. One official said that since the satellite failed, Lockheed has forfeited millions of dollars in what are known as performance payments.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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