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Pentagon closes the book on satellite strike

The Pentagon says its missile intercept eliminated the risks posed by a falling U.S. spy satellite, and its response teams have been disbanded.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pentagon said Monday it has a “high degree of confidence” that the missile fired at a dead U.S. spy satellite in space destroyed the satellite’s fuel tank as planned.

In its most definitive statement yet on the outcome of last Wednesday’s shootdown over the Pacific, the Pentagon said that based on debris analysis it is clear the Navy missile destroyed the fuel tank, “reducing, if not eliminating, the risk to people on Earth from the hazardous chemical.”

The tank had 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms) of hydrazine, a toxic substance that U.S. government officials believed posed a potential health hazard to humans if the satellite had descended to Earth on its own.

The presence of the hydrazine was cited by U.S. officials as the main reason to shoot down the satellite — described as the size of a school bus — which would otherwise have fallen out of orbit on its own in early March. The satellite lost power shortly after reaching its initial orbit in December 2006.

Pentagon officials had said almost immediately after the shootdown by a missile fired from the USS Lake Erie that it appeared the tank had been hit squarely, but they conducted further analysis before reaching a final conclusion.

As of Monday there had been no reports of debris landing on Earth, and it is unlikely any will remain intact to impact the ground, the Pentagon statement said.

“By all accounts this was a successful mission,” Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the Pentagon statement Monday. “From the debris analysis, we have a high degree of confidence the satellite’s fuel tank was destroyed and the hydrazine has been dissipated.”

The Pentagon statement said a space operations center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is tracking fewer than 3,000 pieces of satellite debris, all smaller than a football.

In separate remarks at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham told reporters that military response teams — organized to react in case the satellite debris landed in a populated area — have been disbanded.

“From our standpoint, this largely concludes the military operations for this mission,” Ham said, adding that the modifications made to the ships and to two extra missiles “will now be reconfigured back to their normal status.” Those changes will be made in to put the ships, missiles and other components back in their normal role of defense against missile attack, not to strike satellites, he said.