A missile launched from a Navy ship struck a dying U.S. spy satellite passing 130 miles over the Pacific on Wednesday, the Pentagon said.
It was not clear whether the operation succeeded in its main goal of destroying a tank aboard the satellite that carried a toxic fuel that U.S. officials said could pose a hazard to humans if it landed in a populated area.
"Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours," the Pentagon said in a written statement.
The USS Lake Erie, armed with an SM-3 missile designed to knock down incoming missiles—not orbiting satellites—launched the attack at 10:26 p.m. EST, according to the Pentagon. It hit the satellite as the spacecraft traveled at more than 17,000 mph.
The satellite was traveling much faster than a ballistic missile, much harder target with no heat source, and at an altitude the Naval ballistic missile defense was not intended to intercept.
That is impressive.
Updated: The papers are running with two stories. First, it looks like it may have been a direct hit.
In a briefing today, Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the SM-3 missile had been launched from the USS Lake Erie in the Pacific at 10.26 pm local time (0326 GMT), and had struck the satellite at 22,000 miles per hour.
He said that it could take another 24-48 hours to know for sure that the tank containing the hydrazine had been destroyed - but added that the chances of any debris, or hazardous gasses, breaching the earth's atmosphere and harming humans below were remote.
"The intercept occurred. We are very confident that we hit the satellite," he said. "We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank."
He added that images of a fireball when the missile struck the satellite, which were shown to journalists, indicated that the hydrazine tank may have been struck. "We have a fireball, and given that there is no fuel, that would indicate that that is a hydrazine fire," he said.
Confirmation is expected by the end of the day, but the same story is also highlighting the other angle.
However, Moscow and Beijing complained that the missile strike smacked of hypocrisy as the US had rejected a joint attempt by the two countries from banning weapons in outer space only a month ago.
A Chinese state newspaper, the People's Daily, criticised Washington for hypocrisy for rejecting a treaty to ban weapons in space proposed by Russia and China and then firing a missile at the spy satellite. Washington claims it had rejected the proposed treaty as unworkable, and said it instead favoured confidence-building efforts.
"The United States will not easily abandon its military advantage based on space technology, and it is striving to expand and fully exploit this advantage," said the newspaper commentary said.
Speaking at a press conference this morning, Liu Bianca, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said, tersely: "The Chinese side is continuing to closely follow the US action which may influence the security of outer space and may harm other countries."
The political fallout is dependent upon one thing, whether or not the debris lands in someones yard. There is no evidence this administration is going to play this game, after the veto in the UN regarding the militarization of space, the Bush administration has made clear their policy is no treaty. I'm mixed on this. I do not want to see the militarization of space, but that this incident is being seen as an example of what would violate such a treaty, under those terms, I'm not sure I would agree with the terms of such a treaty. ICBMs can potentially travel at much higher altitudes, I don't think there is any wisdom in adopting a treaty that prevents the development of a defensive system against an existing weapon, particularly when that existing weapon system is the most dangerous in the world, and being proliferated by countries like North Korea.
On the political issue, I believe reasonable people can disagree.
Update2: Press conference transcript. Good questions, good answers.