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.”
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.
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.