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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2646

Bush approves shoot-down of falling satellite by Navy missile cruiser

By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, 16 February, (Asiantribune.com): President Bush has authorized the US Navy to shoot down a US spy satellite that is falling out of orbit and due to collide with the Earth any time now. A Navy cruiser is expected to fire a single missile from its Aegis weapons system as early as the end of next week, according to Pentagon officials. Peace activists have already condemned this anticipated action Bush’s entry into space wars. If the first missile fails to destroy the satellite, the Navy will go at it again after evaluation of the resulting trajectory of the falling satellite. Additional ships are in position to fire two more missiles, if that is deemed necessary.

General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who briefed the press on the plans, have stated that the action was necessary to minimize the danger that debris from the satellite, particularly from its fuel tank, could injure or kill someone when it crashes to Earth.

Some space scientists and critics of the government have denounced these claims, noting that no human being has been injured by any of the thousands of pieces of manmade debris that have fallen to Earth in the 50 years since the launching of Sputnik inaugurated the space age. Some have agreed with the pre-emptive shooting.

There is also the scenario that top-secret technology on board the failing satellite could be recovered by an adversary, and the opportunity to test out US anti-missile technologies on a live target. The satellite, designated US 193, was launched in 2006 at the behest of the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO), the division of the Pentagon that conducts satellite surveillance of the entire globe. US 193 were one of the first to use a new imaging technology which the NRO would like to keep out of the hands of any potential US rival.

Administration has denied all suggestions about losing spy technology stating all equipment on board the satellite would be burned up during reentry. However, the web site Space.com cited a number of cases where complex on-board instruments have survived previous reentries and crashes. It stated that at least in one case, sensitive technology was recovered by a Peruvian peasant on a mountainside in the Andes.

Earlier US space officials had said that US 193 believed that there was no danger to people on the ground and that, in particular, the volatile hydrazine fuel would melt and then burn up during reentry. There is a view now that the fuel tank, filled with a half ton of liquid hydrazine that had frozen solid in the course of more than a year in the near-absolute-zero temperature in orbit, could serve as a buffer for the vehicle’s reentry, allowing more of it to survive the estimated pressures of 25 times gravity. Thus, giving credence to the theory that survival and recovery of secret equipment on board may be a reason for shooting the falling satellite.

United States is in a position to take immediate defensive action against incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aimed at US. These sea-launched missiles fired by Aegis-class cruisers north and east of Japan would be the initial line of defense against a nuclear-armed missile launched against the continental United States. There is a second line of defense: land-based interceptors fired from stations in Alaska and California. They are being tested now while the sea-based interceptors have been deployed already, mostly against the threat of a missile launch from North Korea.

The New York Times recently reported that in short, “The effort will be a real-world test of the nation’s antiballistic missile systems and its anti-satellite abilities, even though the Pentagon said it was not using the effort to test its most exotic weapons or send a message to any adversaries.” According to some reports satellite US 193 differs from the usual test targets for the sea-launched missile since it is much larger—about two and a half tons—and at a much higher altitude. The missile will be able to strike the falling satellite just as it reenters the atmosphere.

Some international observers have stated that the shoot-down was a signal to Russia and China, two the most potent long-term challengers to US military power. They said that in the case of China, the destruction of the satellite would demonstrate that the US had greater capability than that demonstrated by the Chinese last year, when they shot down an aging weather satellite.

The action is particularly troublesome to many observers because it was announced only two days after Russia and China jointly announced their support for a new treaty banning weapons in space. The treaty was presented to a Conference on Disarmament meeting in Geneva, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi declaring, “China hopes the Conference on Disarmament will enter into substantial discussion on the draft as soon as possible in order to reach a common consensus.”

The shoot-down could also have immediate practical consequences for all countries conducting space operations. The resulting explosion of the falling satellite could produce 100,000 pieces of debris, in contrast to the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 pieces of debris produced by the destruction of the Chinese weather satellite, which was much smaller than US 193. The Chinese satellite was at a much higher altitude above the earth, over 600 miles, so the bulk of its debris is still in orbit and a danger to other space traffic. Since US 193 will be at 150 miles above the Earth when it is destroyed, most of its fragments will reenter the atmosphere immediately and burn up.

- Asian Tribune -

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