US Cruiser Strikes Dead Spy Satellite

by Ian O'Neill on February 20, 2008

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Previous tests of an SM-3 missile, the same design as the interceptor used in Wednesdays shoot down (credit: US Navy)
Officials have confirmed that the US spy satellite, USA 193, has been hit by an anti-satellite missile fired from USS Lake Erie positioned west of the Hawaiian Islands in the mid-Pacific at 10.30pm (US Eastern Time) Wednesday night. Fears of the propellant hydrazine being released into the atmosphere prompted the military response. Although plans for the missile strike were hampered by bad weather, the launch appears to have gone ahead regardless.

The 10.30pm time window was chosen by the US so that should the first attempt fail, a second and then a third attempt could be carried out. The window was only 10 seconds long, and BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale, based in Washington, says this operation was hugely ambitious and likened it to “trying to fire a missile through the eye of a needle.”
The anatomy of a satellite shoot down (credit: BBC)
It is hoped that the modified Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) successfully destroyed the large orbiting mass, containing 450kg (1,000lbs) of the poisonous propellant hydrazine. The SM-3 does not carry a warhead; it depends on its high velocity and weight to destroy the target. Travelling at a velocity of over 17,000 mph, on impact the missile and satellite should break up, creating debris and hopefully destroying the full fuel tank. Most of the debris is expected to burn up in the Earths atmosphere over the next 15 hours (or two Earth orbits), and all of it is expected to have re-entered over the next 40 days, eliminating the risk of the poisonous fuel falling to Earth. However, at least 24 hours will be needed to assess how successful the strike has been.
The US spy satellite, that malfunctioned soon after launch, has been destroyed
In an official statement, the Department of Defence has said, “A network of land-, air-, sea- and space-based sensors confirms that the U.S. military intercepted a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite which was in its final orbits before entering the Earth’s atmosphere [...] At approximately 10:26 p.m. EST today, a U.S. Navy AEGIS warship, the USS Lake Erie, fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite approximately 247 kilometers (133 nautical miles) over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph.

The missile strike has prompted anger from both Russia and China, as the nations see it as a provocative manoeuvre by the US, but US officials insist that the missile strike was not intended to showcase their anti-satellite technology and was not used to destroy any top-secret orbital weapon.

Sources: CNN, BBC

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Rude Dude February 24, 2008 at 4:47 AM

Danzio you are Correct Sir!

I’m guessing that as soon as China killed one of there own satelites that was the justification we were waiting on to try one of our own. The political dilema back in the 50′s was how the Soviets and the world would react to the over flight of their airspace with satelites. As soon as Russia did it – it was OK for us to do it.

In todays political climate we wouldn’t want to be the first one blowing stuff up in space for any reason.

I just hope that this new “space race” concentrates more on the really important stuff like ID / tracking prolification of Nukes coming from that irritating little spot on the globe called “___________”

whoknowsidont February 23, 2008 at 9:57 PM

The reason we built the bomb was that we believed Hitler may get it first. But he didn’t get it, and we defeated Germany without it. We used it on Japan when it wasn’t necessary–they had no A bomb and weren’t anywhere close to having one.

But that’s not my point. My point is (whether justified) we are the only country that has proved we will use a nuclear weapon. We started an arms race that has cost trillions and made the world less safe. I will agree there are many others in the world who are far more evil. We have helped them, both in nuclear materials to steal and example, to kill millions more than the WWII Japanese.

We had to build the bomb–I agree. Our mistake was using it for a reason it wasn’t meant. Do you think we should nuke Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iran?

HT February 23, 2008 at 10:49 PM

“Practically every military in the world talks about “death before dishonor” and fighting to the last man and last bullet (France excepted), but Imperial Japan not only practiced it, they expanded “last man/last bullet” to “last man, woman and child, and last bullet, rock and pointed stick.” This is not hyperbole. The battles for Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa make this quite clear. Be advised that in Saipan, civililans committed suicide by the tens of thousands-whole families- rather than face American forces.”

So, Skip Ryan, Why did they stop fighting? Why would the two “atomic” bombs stop them?

Skip Ryan February 24, 2008 at 4:07 PM

Why the quotes for atomic bomb? Where they atomic or not? It is rather important to get our terms correct, yes?

Japan stopped fighting, finally, because Emperor Hirohito, as he stated in his surrender address could no longer countenance the suffering that his people were experiencing.

This does not alter the fact that Army HQ officers attempted a coup with the hope of keeping the war going. Fortunately, some people were more loyal to Hirohito than to Bushido.

There is book entitled “Flyboys”, alas, I cannot recall the author, but I believe that he also wrote “Flags of Our Fathers”, but I am not fully confident there. It is a fantastic insight into the Japanese mind-set during the Pacific War. I highly recommend that before one finds fault with these bombings, one read this book. Readings in bushido- by Japanese authors-would also be helpful in understanding why Operation Olympic would NOT have been preferable to 2 mushroom clouds and that the Japanese were not going to surrender.

To study history as it is recorded is, especially from the perspective of the “Other Guys” is much more preferable to reliance on theory.

Launching an arms race? What, the Soviets were a peacful minded lot aforehand? You might wish to inquire about that to the Finns. A very strong argument can be made that the Bomb actually saved lives beyond the MILLIONS saved due to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (remember, the Japanese concur in this assessment).

One should hope that you are aware that GEN Douglas MacArthur had hoped to make use of nuclear weapons during the Korean War. Thank God President Truman understood the leadership maxim of “When in charge, take charge”, and finally fired MacArthur before things got out of hand. The spectre of the Bomb, in Truman’s own writings, was a major factor in his decision. Truman wrote of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunting him, and not wanting to visit that upon Korean and Chinese cities, especially considering that nuclear weapons technology had progressed markedly in 5+ years time (see: “Hydrogen bomd”).

BTW: So-called conventional “fire-bombing” raids on many other Japanese cities, and several German ones, caused far more destruction and death than the A-bomb cities combined, but I guess that’s okay for the purpose of this debate.

The Spectre of the Bomb effect also undoubtedly kept the Soviet Union out of Western Europe. Many people like to paint the US as an aggressor nation during this period, but, factually (sorry), we actually invaded very few countries with the result of claiming those previously sovereign states as our own. A quick look-see of the period 1945-1991 would show that the US invested no countries with the intent of adding either a new territory or state.

No, North Vietnam was actively supporting an insurretion in South Vietnam, we sought to stop it. When we were successful in that endevour, Nort Vietnam actually invaded the sovereign state of South Vietnam.

No, North Korea invaded South Vietnam. We removed the North Koreans from the Republic of Korea, and, perhaps, went too far north. China invaded pushing UN troops back south. We came back, stabilizing the border (more or less). A state of war technically still exists. In either event, the US goal there was not an imperialist one.

Yet, over in Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czecholslovkia, etc., etc., etc. And just a bit farther south, The SU’s last imperialist (what else to call it- they grabbed land in order to make it their own) action- Afghanistan.

What kept these events from getting larger? The bomb.

BTW: Japan had a Bomb program, too. Fortunately, they, too, followed the German heavy water model, and were even farther behind the Germans in this regard.

The Spectre of the Bomb (there is a fascinatingly ironic acronym there, yes?) also kept us out of Cuba after Castro went red. Little known but Castro had some tacit support within the Eisenhower adminstration at first. We liked the Cuban people. But then, Castro announced himself a communist and the US lost a LOT of money. No surprise that a LOT of people close to Ike wanted us to go take Cuba back, maybe even re-install Batitista as El Presidente. But like Truman, Ike was concerned about the Bomb, this time Bombs addressed “From Russia with Love.” And he wasn’t going to do it over Cuba.

History: it’s fantastic.

Skip Ryan February 24, 2008 at 5:04 PM

Stupid typo above there: Korea v. Vietnam. You know what I meant so let’s not dwell on it, eh?

Brad April 2, 2008 at 1:56 AM

Despite the regrettable loss of life, I as an Australian thank the American forces for dropping nuclear weapons on Japan. I seriously doubt that fewer lives would have been lost of the war continued conventionally. I’m sure my grandfather who was fighting the Japanese in Papua New Guinea at the time would also thank you were he still alive. As many of you may not have been aware, Australia was next. The Japanese had already commenced bombing Australian cities and attacking shipping in the area. Thank god for all those who put the lives of others before their own. I won’t forget you.

Skeptic April 24, 2008 at 6:47 PM

The real contest is the war between the space powers. To prevent the U.S. from overwhelming the Chinese by our technological know-how, the Chinese are ready to blow away U.S. spy satellites and render our GPS guided missiles worthless. Of course, in order to do that, they have to rely on their own spy satellites to guide their missiles. We, having more spy satellites than they have, will have some remaining while the Chinese ones will all be destroyed. This is a game where numbers count.

Keith Nealy January 29, 2009 at 6:26 PM

I gather from the thrust of this conversation that no one believes this satellite was shot down to protect us from deadly hydrazine. What difference would it make if they bust it up and then it all comes crashing down, or if it comes down and busts up in the atmosphere. As I understand it, hydrazine is highly volatile and flammable. Wouldn’t it just burn up quite nicely on its own?

So the remaining reasons appear to be to test our anti-sat weapons, demonstrate them to the world, and/or prevent the recovery of large chunks of this super-secret sat from being recovered by anyone other than us.

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