A U.S. Department of Defense press briefing was held February 14 in which plans were announced by Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey for a tactical missile to be aimed at the surveillance satellite USA 193, coming in from orbiting the Earth after roughly 14 months in space. Launched December 14, 2006, the satellite’s central computer failed immediately after launch and the satellite failed to respond to ground based controllers. It’s orbit is currently at 160 miles (260km) above the Earth and has been decaying for over a year.

The missile, called a Standard Missile 3, costs $10 million apiece and would be launched from an Aegis ship. It can zoom up just above the atmosphere and could reach the satellite with enough kinetic energy to ensure a good impact. If the missile misses, there might still be an opportunity to try again in the next few days. However, General James Cartwright was saying that this is a one shot deal. There will be three ships on station to launch missiles only if the first missile misfires. After the next few days, due to the decaying orbit, the satellite’s fall would increase in velocity, eventually becoming a free-fall object. Since the missile is coming from a mobile platform, the ships could be positioned to achieve an impact helping the satellite to fall in an unpopulated area.

The Pentagon wants to shoot the satellite down in order to destroy the hydrazine rocket fuel aboard the spacecraft  as well as sensitive optical gear aboard. The President has approved these plans. General Cartwright said the satellite weighs 5,000 pounds of which half would be expected to survive re-entry.

Ironically, part of the reason for the hydrazine is to help position the satellite for a controlled crash into the ocean upon the end of its useful life. The ‘catch-22’ here is that since the satellite isn’t communicating, the hydrazine can’t be used, and unless destroyed could pose a hazard once the free falling satellite hits the ground.

General Cartwright said they want to hit the satellite just before it enters Earth’s atmosphere to minimize leaving debris in space; the hope being that the debris immediately de-orbits and burns up and is not a hazard to other satellites. He also spoke of possible concerns of the debris hitting aviation in the lower atomosphere and detailed the planned procedure in this event. If they only graze the satellite, it’s still good because it will aid in bringing the satellite down more predictably.

The military will wait until the space shuttle lands next Wednesday morning before commencing the shoot down attempt.

A question and answer session followed the news conference. The transcript of the complete news conference can be found below.

Seal of the Department of Defensehttp://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4145

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