Pentagon wants missile to blow-up wayard satellite

PLEASE READ OUR UPDATE: The Pentagon’s one-time attempt to shoot down a satellite

Rather than take the chance a large piece of falling spy satellite will land on your house, the Pentagon is planning to shoot it down.

The Associate Press and others are reporting that the Bush administration is favoring an option to fire a special missile modified for the task, from a U.S. Navy cruiser and blow up the satellite before it enters Earth’s atmosphere next month.

Reports have varied on the size of the satellite and how much of it might actually make it through reentry and hit anyone or anything on the ground. Most space experts, however don’t believe such plummeting debris really pose much danger but now that the military is apparently intent on shooting this one down, perhaps we don’t know the whole story.

Satellites come out of orbit and fall back to Earth harmlessly on average once a year, Dr Ruediger Jehn, a space debris analyst at the European Space Agency told the BBC last month. Normally, when US spy satellites reach the end of their lives, they are disposed of through a controlled re-entry and dumped in the Pacific Ocean, so that no-one can learn their secrets. But, Dr Jehn says older satellites are often more difficult to de-orbit properly.

“When they re-enter they usually burn up in the atmosphere because a lot of heat has developed and there is a lot of friction,” he told the BBC. “Only heat-resistant or very heavy objects will survive. There is a risk in this case that something will hit the ground, but given that the Earth is so big, the probability in this case that someone will be hit is really remote.”

The AP said details about the missile and the targeting were not immediately available. But the decision involves several U.S. agencies, including the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Defense and the State Department.

Shooting down a satellite is particularly sensitive because of the controversy surrounding China’s anti-satellite test last year, when Beijing shot down one of its defunct weather satellites, drawing immediate criticism from the U.S. and other countries, the AP stated.

Aviation Week said Aerospace Corp., a California-based research organization that regularly advises the Defense Department, has assembled some basic data about falling satellites and what can be done about them.

 "For an orbiting object, shooting it down actually breaks the object into many pieces, some of which could be hazardous to other satellites," says the Aerospace Corp. "Many of the fragments will survive re-entry, but be spread over a much larger area. The pros and cons for a specific case would need to be examined."Re-entering objects, including major items such as satellites, platforms and rocket bodies, have dropped 5,400 metric tons of material on the Earth in the past 40 years, the research group says.

The concern is that the spacecraft carries a full tank of hydrazine - a toxic propellant - that would have been used to reposition the satellite in orbit.

Government analysts say the odds are that the tank will crack open during re-entry or than it will land in the ocean, which makes up 70% of the area where the breaking up satellite might land, Aviation Week reported.  

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