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.