|WASHINGTON >> A missile launched from a Navy ship successfully struck a dying U.S. spy satellite passing 130 miles over the Pacific on Wednesday, a defense official said.
The Pentagon said it should know tomorrow whether the spacecraft’s fuel tank was destroyed as planned. The aim was not just to hit the bus-sized satellite — which would burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere anyway — but to obliterate a tank onboard that is carrying 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a toxic fuel. The fuel, unused because the satellite died shortly after reaching orbit in December 2006 — could be hazardous if it landed in a populated area.
Pearl Harbor ships were involved in the expensive, high-tech launch that employed the Navy's missile-defense system.
A Pentagon official at briefing yesterday said that Lake Erie was one of the three warships involved in the missile shoot. The other two warships were the destroyers USS Russell, also based at Pearl Harbor, and the USS Decatur from San Diego.
The Lake Erie was equipped with two SM-3 missiles, the Pentagon official said. The Decatur was positioned close enough to the Lake Erie to step in if something went wrong. The Russell was used to help with telemetry information, the Pentagon added.
The window of opportunity for the shootdown began at 5:30 p.m. today, and word that the target was hit was released about 15 minutes later.
Two officials said the missile was launched successfully. One official, who is close to the process, said it hit the target. He said details on the results were not immediately known.
The goal in this first-of-its-kind mission for the Navy was not just to hit the satellite but to obliterate a tank aboard the spacecraft carrying 1,000 pounds of a toxic fuel called hydrazine.
U.S. officials have said the fuel would pose a potential health hazard to humans if it landed in a populated area. Although the odds of that were small even if the Pentagon had chosen not to try to shoot down the satellite, it was determined that it was worth trying to eliminate even that small chance.
Officials said it might take a day or longer to know for sure if the toxic fuel was blown up.
The timing was tricky. For the best chance to succeed, the military had to wait for a combination of favorable factors: steady seas around the Navy cruiser that would fire the missile, optimum positioning of the satellite as it passed in polar orbit and the readiness of an array of space- and ground-based sensors to help cue the missile and track the results.
The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates — not a military commander — traveled to Hawaii to make the final decision to pull the trigger. Gates was to meet with reporters tomorrow morning at Pearl Harbor.
At U.S. Pacific Command headquarters on Oahu, where a military command center was monitoring the operation, Adm. Timothy J. Keating told reporters earlier that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the missile launch would occur Wednesday night and that it would succeed in its mission.
Keating, head of the Pacific Command, said the weather in the area where the Navy ship was favorable.