Pentagon to Shoot Down Satellite A broken U.S. spy satellite threatens to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. Analysts say they wouldn't be surprised if the satellite ends up on eBay.
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Pentagon to Shoot Down Satellite

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Pentagon to Shoot Down Satellite

Pentagon to Shoot Down Satellite

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, New York and Los Angeles launch investigations into health insurance companies and we get the lowdown on the presidential candidates' health care proposals.

COHEN: First though, to space. Sometime in the next two weeks the U.S. military will try to shoot down a crippled spy satellite that's about as big as a Chevy Suburban. The government says the satellite is dangerous because it's carrying toxic fuel. If left alone, it would likely crash back into the atmosphere sometime next month and could injure or possibly even kill people. We turn now to John Pike. He's director of the private national security Web site

Welcome back to the program, Mr. Pike.

Mr. JOHN PIKE ( Glad to be here.

COHEN: Can you tell us, first of all, how exactly do you shoot down a 5000-pound spacecraft?

Mr. PIKE: Well, it's not so much a process of shooting it down the way you would shoot down an airplane as it is of shooting it up. That is to say, they're going to fire a missile that has a heat-seeking warhead on it that will collide with the satellite in orbit. And when the satellite runs into this kill vehicle at 17,000 miles-an-hour, the spacecraft will disintegrate into a lot of little pieces. The little pieces will be traveling at orbital velocity, and over a period of a week or ten days all those little pieces, they will reenter the Earth's atmosphere.

COHEN: Now, here's what I don't get. If they're going to reenter the Earth's atmosphere, and apparently, you know, this spacecraft was carrying this toxic fuel called hydrazine, how do we know that some of these bits and pieces aren't going to have that too and still effect people?

Mr. PIKE: Well, hydrazine is a liquid and the hydrazine would burn up on reentry. About half of the material on the spacecraft is expected to burn up on reentry; the other half of it is expected to reach the ground.

COHEN: And wind up on eBay.

Mr. PIKE: Well, wind up somewhere. In all probability, it's probably going to wind up in the bottom of the ocean. But there is that non-trivial possibility that it will fall on land. Souvenir hunters will pick it up and they'll sell it on eBay.

COHEN: This is being called a test of the nation's anti-ballistic missile systems. How accurate an assessment will it provide for us of our capability?

Mr. PIKE: Well, not particularly, because this spacecraft is significantly larger than a missile or warhead target. The Aegis missile defense system has been tested over a dozen times over the last several years and most of those tests have been successful. So I think we already understand that the Aegis system is reasonably reliable.

COHEN: Now, President Bush has insisted that this shoot-down is strictly for safety reasons, but it seems like there are some political implications here as well.

Mr. PIKE: Well, I think the security implication is there's a reason this event is unusual, because normally when a spy satellite reaches the end of its life they will have a controlled reentry, they will cause it to come down over the Pacific Ocean so that there's no way that the Russians or the Chinese would be able to pick up any of the debris and learn anything about the spacecraft. Since they don't have control of this spacecraft, that's not possible here.

COHEN: The U.S. criticized China last year when Chine tested its anti-satellite systems in a somewhat similar fashion. So how do you think China will react to this decision for us to shoot down a spacecraft?

Mr. PIKE: Well, I don't know that the Chinese are in very much of a position to be critical of our activities here. One critical difference, of course, is that this intercept is going to be at an altitude of something like 100 miles; the Chinese intercept was at an altitude of 500 miles. The debris the Chinese test created would remain in Earth orbit for years; the debris that the American test in going to create, the American intercept is going to create, will remain in orbit for hours or days at most.

COHEN: Going back to the practicalities here, I'm just trying to picture what all of this is going to look like. You're on one of these Aegis ships. Is someone pressing a button? Are they launching something that looks almost like a gun? What does it look like?

Mr. PIKE: Well, it looks like a missile. It's long and pointy and has little wings on it. And they launch them from a silo, a canister in the deck of the ship, and the thing flies up into the sky, gets up to an altitude of about 100 miles and there's a kill vehicle on it, I'd say the size of a TV set, that has a little camera on it that would see the heat being emitted by the spacecraft and home in on it.

Mr. PIKE: Mr. Pike, do you buy the administration's word on this, that this is purely for safety reasons because of this toxic fuel? Or is there something else going on here?

Mr. PIKE: Well, I'm skeptical that the toxic fuel is the only reason they're doing this intercept. I think that there have to be people in the government that would be concerned that an uncontrolled reentry could result in some of this advanced American technology winding up in the hands of the Chinese or the Russians.

COHEN: John Pike is the director of the private national security website Thank you.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you.

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