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Spy Satellite's Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability

The U.S. Navy shot down a wayward spy satellite orbiting the Earth. Video courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Geoffrey Forden, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked with colleagues to estimate the probability of the hydrazine harming anyone on Earth, said that if the fuel tank made it through the atmosphere, there was a 3-in-100 chance that it would land within 100 yards of someone.

He and his colleagues also calculated, however, that the tank would be subject to a force of 50 times gravity (at the surface) as it fell through the atmosphere, and there was virtually no chance that it would have remained intact.

"It certainly would seem that protecting people against a hazardous fuel was not what this was really about," he said.

The congressional response was also mixed, although several members said the shoot-down must be a one-time event.

After praising the military for the feat of shooting down the satellite, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in a statement: "This was an exceptional case, and I reiterate that this action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, was more critical, saying "the geopolitical fallout of this intercept could be far greater than any chemical fallout that would have resulted from a wayward satellite."

At 150 miles altitude, the shot was the highest successful intercept by an SM-3 missile, surpassing earlier successes by nearly 50 percent. Experts said that means it is possible the military could use the modified missiles to track and destroy satellites that are 200 to 250 miles aloft, although no testing has been done at those heights with these specific missiles.

The Pentagon had modified three SM-3 missiles to shoot at the out-of-control satellite at a cost of $30 million to$40 million. Cartwright said the two unused missiles would be reconfigured to their previous condition. Left alone, the satellite was expected to fall to Earth on March 6.

Amateur astronomers on Canada's west coast told the Associated Press that they had seen about two dozen trails of debris in the sky within minutes of when the missile hit, about 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

While officials expect the remaining debris to fall out of orbit within two weeks, the debate over the implications of the shoot-down will remain.

"I think they were using the threat as cover to do something they have been wanting to do for a long time," said Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information who specializes in missile defense. "It shows that our missile defense programs are not just missile defense programs, they're also anti-satellite programs."

Supporters of missile defense technologies, however, said the U.S. intercept was far different from China's high altitude anti-satellite test because the Pentagon was transparent about its actions and because it was necessary for safety reasons.

"In my judgment, the China test was a message to the U.S. that they are pursuing an asymmetric space policy," said Baker Spring, a missile defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. "That's a fundamentally different moral proposition than the U.S. shooting down a decaying satellite that could hurt life on the ground."

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