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"Se se pudessem interrogar as estrelas perguntar-lhes-ia se as maçam mais os astrónomos ou os poetas." Pitigrilli


"Se se pudessem interrogar as estrelas perguntar-lhes-ia se as maçam mais os astrónomos ou os poetas." Pitigrilli

Spy Satellite's Scheduled Destruction Raises Concerns About Diplomatic Fallout

The Pentagon's decision to shoot down a failing U.S. spy satellite has prompted speculation about why the orbiter must intentionally be destroyed and has reignited debate regarding the military and diplomatic implications of using weapons in space.

Last week, Pentagon officials said that a three-ship convoy just north of the Hawaiian Islands would track the satellite and shoot it down in the next two weeks using a modified SM-3 missile fired from an Aegis cruiser.

The satellite, launched just over a year ago, experienced a technical failure almost immediately after reaching space and is currently circling in a low orbit, about 140 miles above the earth.

One expert said that the missile would not completely destroy the satellite in its orbit, but would break it up into small pieces that would eventually (in days or weeks) enter the atmosphere and burn up before impact.

A Defense Department spokesman said the satellite is being destroyed to minimize the potentially lethal effects of its onboard fuel, known as hydrazine, were the satellite allowed to fall from orbit and were its fuel tanks to reach the earth intact.

Hydrazine, a compound that includes hydrogen, water, nitrogen and ammonia, has been used as a rocket fuel since World War II and is considered a toxic material.

Bush administration officials say the decision to destroy the 5,000-pound satellite was made for safety's sake and not out of concern that the spy satellite's technology could fall into the hands of a rival nation.

"The chances are very small that anything of intelligence value would make it intact to earth," Pentagon spokesman Maj. Patrick Ryder told World Politics Review. "The sole reason we are doing this is to destroy the hydrazine tank."

But some experts question that rationale, saying the chances of the fuel tanks not burning up upon reentry are minimal.

"It's hard for me to imagine how an intact hydrazine tank would make it to the surface of the earth," said Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists.

Oelrich said that the chances of sophisticated U.S.-designed intelligence hardware surviving the violent reentry process are even slimmer and speculated that the administration's real objective in shooting down the satellite is to test the SM-3 missile as a modified satellite interceptor.

"This is merely a chance to demonstrate out anti-satellite capability" in the wake of China's successful destruction of one of its own satellite's in January of last year, he said.

At the time, U.S. officials were critical of China's destruction of a satellite orbiting 475 miles above the earth using a SC-19 missile. The satellite's destruction proved that China was capable of intercepting objects in space at ranges at which U.S. weaponry is untested.

But John Pike, director of, believes that protecting secrets is the real reason for the government's decision. Pike said the satellite's destruction is an effort by the Pentagon "to keep its hardware out of the hands of the Russians and the Chinese."

Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials and scientists said China's anti-satellite demonstation left behind about 1,600 large pieces of debris that would remain in orbit for decades and could prove hazardous to future satellites, ships or space stations.

"That debris up there [from the Chinese missile test in 2007] is like diamonds. It's forever," said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, an arms control group in Washington, D.C.

While debris is less of an issue in the case of the planned U.S. action because the target satellite is orbiting much lower, advocates of banning space weapons worry that the U.S. shoot down, occurring against the backdrop of Russian and Chinese military competition with the United States, will set off an arms race in space.

While China used its January 2007 anti-satellite missile test to flex its military muscles on the world stage, it has, along with Russia, been simultaneously pushing for an international treaty to restrict the deployment of weapons in space. Russia and China appear to be concerned that the United States is seeking to acquire the means to attack Russian and Chinese reconnaissance satellites and long-range ballistic missiles.

In October 2006, the Bush administration published a new U.S. National Space Policy. Although, according to its unclassified version, the policy acknowledges the value of international cooperation in space and the right of "free passage" through space for all countries, the text caused concern in Beijing and Moscow because it reaffirmed U.S. intent to protect its space capabilities by all available means.

Hitchens said the U.S. decision to shoot down one of its own satellites following China's success one year ago could prompt nations like India and Israel to do likewise as a show of military might to their respective rivals Pakistan and Iran, which in turn could one day develop their own anti-satellite technology.

"It looks like the United States is shaking its saber at China. . . . I'm not sure this is a point that we want to prove," she said.

Hitchens went on to speculate that the test could foment the creation of a "battlefield that knows no boundary."

The destruction of the errant spy satellite would not, however, be the first time that the United States has demonstrated its ability to shoot down an object in space.

In 1985, the military shot down a satellite with a missile fired from an F-15 Eagle fighter.

The decision to use missile technology to bring down the satellite appears to have been well-received on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. California Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher said the decision to bring down the satellite by force was the responsible one.

"Just like our partners in space, we need to be responsible for the risks we create," said Tauscher, who is the chairwoman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, the New York Times reported.

The congresswoman warned, however, that the effort must not be construed by others, or framed by the United States, as "a demonstration of an offensive capability."

Carmen Gentile is a Miami-based freelance journalist and a frequent World Politics Review contributor.