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US Planning to Shoot Down Dead Spy Satellite

Article written: 14 Feb , 2008
Updated: 26 Dec , 2015
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The US Navy is planning to shoot down a dead spy satellite that broke down shortly after it was launched in December 2006. Not only are there fears that the large satellite could survive re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere causing damage and perhaps fatalities, the satellite is also carrying the poisonous hydrazine propellant that could be a health risk if inhaled. Therefore plans are afoot to destroy the craft in orbit rather than letting it fall to Earth some time late February or early March.

This has been a frustrating time for the US military. As previously reported on the Universe Today, one of their most advanced spy satellite systems broke down soon after it was launched into space, leaving mission controllers in the dark as to where the satellite was going. This is bad enough, but if the satellite fell to Earth, it could reveal potentially sensitive secrets about the US spying technology. And not forgetting the potential risk of damage or death should the chunk of high-tech scrap fall to Earth… the US military is now planning to take action rather than leaving it up to gravity to decide where the satellite will crash.

Officially, the reason for the planned shooting down of the craft is not to destroy top secret technology (as most of the sensitive material is likely to burn up) but to prevent deadly fumes from being produced from the propellants the craft has in abundance onboard (after all, it didn’t have much of a chance to use any of its fuel). This is an opportunity for the US Navy to use one of its ballistic missile launchers onboard one of its support vessels. The Arleigh Burke class destroyer, USS Decatur (pictured) underwent ballistic missile launch tests last year, built to intercept incoming missiles high in the atmosphere. The satellite, presumed to be in a low Earth orbit, may be reached by such a missile defence system.

The area affected by the hydrazine should the fuel tanks survive re-entry would cover two football pitches, and if inhaled, would have similar effects to chlorine or ammonia – causing a burning sensation in the lungs. If too much is breathed in, it could prove deadly. A US military general stated that should the plan go ahead, they will take one missile shot and then assess whether a second would be required during a two day window. He also added that the Space Shuttle Atlantis will have landed before any such interception attempt is made.


26 Responses

  1. Ed Myers says

    I’ve read some comments about this story on the Bad Astronomy website. There is conjecture that the “real” reasons are to prevent sensitive material from surviving reentry and to show the Chinese that we can shoot down a satellite too. These may be true, at least somewhat. But being peripherally (and I mean VERY peripherally) involved in defense aerospace, I can tell you that having a “real” target to test missile defense systems against truly is golden. Launching a rocket from Kodiak Island and intercepting it above Hawaii is good, but a real satellite to shoot down is better.

  2. Terry in Sydney says

    When the Chinese shot down their satellite there was uproar over the huge increase in space junk it that created and I believe ( may be wrong ) the Americans were among the most vocal on this matter. So, how are the US Navy planning to address this issue? I can only presume that they will wait for the satellite to reach a low enough orbit that most of the bits and pieces will fall back down to Earth? Either way, God the US does love to blow stuff up!

  3. Dark Gnat says

    Yes, the US does like to blow stuff up.

    I mean really, who doesn’t?

    No doubt, the US wants to show China (along with Iran, North Korea, and now Russia, or at least Putin it seems) that it can blast a sat out of space too. I have a feeling that there will be a new space race, that may have already started. This partly worries me, but the sci-fi geek in me thinks it’s freaking cool.

  4. marcellus says

    So they’re going to shoot it down over the Pacific? Darn. There goes my fantasy about stargazing at my favorite spot with flaming space debris falling all around me while listening to Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries”.

  5. Lawrence McCurrach says

    the US has been able to shoot down satellites since the mid 1980’s.

    There are probably several reasons for conducting this test. 1. real life test environment. 2. ecological concerns 3. demonstration of missile defense integration.

  6. Chuck says

    How much more impressive would it be to wait until it is mid-fall (50ish miles up), and it would insure all the parts would return to Earth instead of floating around…I’m hoping at least we get a good image of it.
    kcuhC

  7. Wes Lambert says

    Obviously some saber rattling going on here, along with spending some serious taxpayer dollars. Logic sez to me that if left alone, the decaying orbit should cause the vehicle to enter the atmosphere at such a velocity that the thing should burn up nicely. Even if the propellant tank itself can resist re-entry, the propellant should boil and expand sufficiently to burst the container and dilute itself to harmless levels in the upper atmosphere. Sounds like I’m saying that polluting the stratosphere is OK?. Of course not, but if you add the amount of debris injected into the atmosphere by what becomes two vehicles and their assorted fluids coming earthward (and every last molecule will!) then you create a bigger problem than you had with one.

  8. Alex says

    What about using an anti-satellite missile such as the
    ASM-135 ASAT?

  9. Mike Carter says

    U.S. planning on shooting down dead spy satelite.
    Alot of “saber rattling” and waste of “tax payers money ” ?
    At least they’re saying thay have a problem, and are going to fix it.
    I would hate to watching my fav. eppisode of “House” and have a huge spy satelite come crashing through MY roof. 50 – 50 % chance, yeah, but why gamble ?
    There is a much bigger waster of tax payers money waging right now, some where else.

  10. Rev. says

    … PULL…

  11. Rev. says

    … Believe the statement being made by the US is self-explanatory… provided, we hit the clay (opps, exotic metal) pigeon… P U L L…

  12. Uwe says

    Does anyone know if the missile will have an explosive warhead or just be an inertial impactor? I think either way someone downrange could get a great meteor show. It would be great if this was timed for darkness in the strewnfield of the debris. If the target is the pacific, any debris that overshoots could re-enter over the US. Who do we lobby to get them to do this when it is dark here?

  13. john giordano says

    People might kick the bucket if they miss. What are the effects of Hydrazine poisoning.

  14. Dan says

    Dear Ian O’neill,

    This is incorrect “This has been a frustrating time for the US military” Wrong, just wrong… The Clinton years were frustrating, the Carter years were frustrating. This satellite belongs to a civillian part of the US GOV… the NRO is part of the puzzle palace, the NSA. Same kind of gov unit as NASA. A more correct statment would be ” This has a successful time for the US military, again young Americans in uniform rise to the call. Helping out around the globe” Also GO NAVY BEAT AIR FORCE!BZ BZ BZ BZ

  15. Cowboy John says

    Fistly, the person that said that the fuel will burn up or boil off on re-entry is mistaken. The fuel will not boil or burn off in the tank this tank. It has been designed to withstand extreme heat. Remember that the rocket sending it into orbit had to reach a velocity of 17,500 MPH, through an atmosphere not designed to let you out without a lot of friction. Hense, EXTREME heat was endured in getting there. Give me a good reason for destroying it like to save lives and I am ok with all the conjecture of secondary reasons..

  16. Zoltan Spin says

    5 tons or so of materials will be vaporized high in the atmosphere leaving not a single bolt solid, and hydrazine could however reach safely ground to harm people ?

    Only tax-payers sponsored propaganda, to show China and Russia who has the biggest one. A real pity…

  17. Preston Willson says

    The hydrazine if frozen. It is not as much danger as the media reports. This gives the Navy something to do. There are no extra cost except to replace the material used.
    This is not the same as any operation of the failed Star Wars program. News of this operation is great because it replaces all the crap about the election being broadcast. Glad that it did not take approval of congress to do this–If it had the event would never happen. President Bush approved this operation. Hope it is not another of his failures. Go Navy.

  18. wmm says

    If this is a technology demo, it would be much more impressive to strike the target from an angle that decelerates rather than accelerates debris, or whatever angle that would minimize space pollution.

  19. Celso Paiz says

    This is not a test if it were the satellite would not have a toxin inside. This really worries me because if they destroy it pieces would still fall (including parts of the toxin). Now i wonder whose bright idea was it to send a toxin to space instead of been destroyed here on Earth?

  20. marcellus says

    Boo hoo hoo to all who think this is a waste of taxpayers money. This is a great chance to show Russia and China we have an outstanding missle defense system. Go Navy!

  21. Lala says

    Yeah, let’s show those commies what we can do given the chance. We only have to shoot the satellite 135 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, whereas China did with a distance of over 500 miles. Who wants to bet that if we don’t hit the first time and get to try again within three days what that will do to our reputation as a leading world power. China did in one, I hope we can do the same.

  22. Dark Gnat says

    The fuel tanks can survive re-entry. Remember Columbia?

    It seems China is putting up a fuss about shooting down the sat. Hypocrits.

  23. Albe says

    My God America, Wake Up.
    We have a Space Shuttle with an arm up there right now! Bring it back home in one piece. But what the hell, let’s poke some more holes and leave more junk up in the heavens, Nobody cares. Hey! Why not send Bush up there with a broom and shovel?

  24. Logan says

    The last thing you want to do with a space shuttle is have it try to catch up to and hook up with a satellite that you cannot control. If it reacts badly to things getting near it, as I think all satellites put up by the NSA should than it might prove hazardous to the shuttle. Maybe I am being paranoid here but all the people at the NSA are paranoid to a fault. If the only people who could get to your satellite is your enemies who says they don’t have a way of taking them out.

  25. Charlie says

    Where our hazmat outfit’s Honey-there around here some where. Did granddad get that seller dug? Run down and buy a parakeet, too.

  26. Phil says

    re Lala

    China got theirs on the 4th try, and btw a low orbit sat moves much faster. In this case, twice the speed of the Chinese weather sat.

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