Experts: The possible damage that would have been caused if the satellite had fallen to Earth is not worth the damage of starting an arms race in spaceAn SM-3 missile was launched this morning from the US Navy ship "Lake Erie" from Kauai, Hawaii, during a test of the Missile Defense Agency Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). As planned, this missile hit an American spy satellite that went out of control when it was launched in December 2006, and was about to crash on Earth uncontrolled at the beginning of March.
The launcher operators only had a ten-second window to hit the satellite - USA 193. Pentagon officials claimed that they were concerned that the fuel, hydrazine, 450 kg of which is in the satellite's fuel tank, and which was supposed to be used by the satellite for orbit corrections in space for many years , may reach Earth and pose a threat to humans. However, Russia suspects that the operation is a cover for testing an anti-satellite weapon system, as part of the US missile defense program.
The US denied that the test was a response for an anti-satellite missile test carried out by China last year, and which caused fear of an arms race in space. The Russian Ministry of Defense wrote in a statement that many satellites and spaceships have crashed on Earth in the past, when they contained large amounts of hydrazine, but so far this has not been a problem that requires such an extreme step to be taken to deal with it.
The BBC reports that this is a particularly ambitious operation, similar to launching a missile through the eye of a needle. The satellite passed over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 210 kilometers and at a tremendous speed of about 30 thousand km/h. The British news site also reports that the operation took place a few hours after the safe landing of the shuttle Atlantis in order to prevent it from being damaged by satellite debris. It is still unclear whether the mission was completely successful, that is, whether the missile ruptured the hydrazine tank, otherwise the tank might survive re-entry into the atmosphere. The Pentagon says that confirmation that the missile ruptured the tank may come from radar images within about 24 hours. If the container lands intact, the toxic gas may leak out and spread over a large area, killing humans and animals that inhale it.
It is estimated that more than 50% of the fragments will fall on the earth in the first 15 hours after the impact. Space debris experts fear that in the end 25% of the satellite fragments will continue to wander in space for a long time and pose a risk to the satellites as they move in a long path above the earth.
The concern: legitimization of space warfare
The website space.com quotes Jeffrey Forden, a physicist from MIT and a space expert, who said that the chance of harming people as a result of the fall of the satellite, if it had not been intercepted, was about 3.5%, but he believes that the political consequences of the attempts to damage the satellite may to be worse due to the opening of the international arena for anti-satellite missile tests in the future, and an arms race in space.
"It is necessary to weigh the risk of the satellite hitting someone against the legitimacy of China's ASAT (anti-satellite weapon) test," Forden said. A three percent chance of hitting or injuring someone is pretty high, but the consequences of allowing China to continue developing the weapon show that this is a bad idea."
And of course there is the problem of space debris. The surviving satellite fragments will join the 17 or more objects already tracked by the US Space Scanning Network. According to NASA's Orbital Fragments Program in Houston, over the past 45 years the catalog of objects orbiting the Earth has grown, while the burning rate of these fragments in the atmosphere is only one per day. "These things will hang around there until gravity overwhelms them. Too many fragments like this could damage the launchers - even manned ones - when launched. says Roger Lonius, a senior missile expert at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
(for news from yesterday, before the launch)
The US Navy plans to fire tonight at 05:30 Israel time and hit the spy satellite
20/2/2008, 16: 00
The US Navy is about to launch a missile today that will hit the wayward spy satellite, which threatens to crash on Earth and possibly even release toxic gas.
Sailors aboard the US Navy ship "Lake Erie" plan to launch the missile into space from a naval point in western Hawaii today, Wednesday, at around 22:30 PM EST (05:30 Israel time, Thursday). The officials in the Pentagon who gave this information hope to destroy the satellite weighing about 2,400 kg which broke down shortly after its launch in December 2006.
The destruction operation is supposed to cost about 60 million dollars, although there is a small probability that the satellite will indeed survive the penetration into the atmosphere and release the hydrazine gas reservoir that was supposed to be used for years for maneuvers in space, said James Jeffrey, the president's deputy national security adviser.
The Chinese military destroyed an out-of-service meteorological satellite, raising questions about the ability of the US to show its commercial and military rival that it too can destroy satellites. Jeffrey denied that this was the purpose of the operation. "It's all about trying to reduce the risk to humans." said.
Meanwhile, NASA is preparing at the space center in Florida for the expected landing of the shuttle Atlantis at 16:07 Israel time.
More on this topic on the science website