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U.S. Plan to Shoot Down Satellite Delayed by Weather

February 20, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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The U.S. military's plan to shoot down a defunct spy satellite rather than let it fall out of the sky was delayed by rough seas and and strong winds in the Pacific Ocean. Experts debate the effort and how it might fit into the Pentagon's larger space strategy.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, shooting down a satellite. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The malfunctioning spy satellite, about the size of a large bus, has been orbiting the Earth since its launch in December of 2006, and it’s now losing altitude.

The administration’s decision to shoot it down before it hits Earth has stirred a small storm among arms control advocates here and statements of concern from the governments of Russia and China, as well.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman General James Cartwright said last week that the Pentagon wants to prevent the noxious fuel on board — hydrazine — from contaminating the area where the satellite would otherwise crash to Earth.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT, Vice Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff: The likelihood of it hitting the land or a person as a hunk of metal or material is relatively low. It’s the hydrazine here that is the distinguishing characteristic.

MARGARET WARNER: Cartwright denied speculation that the Pentagon was trying to keep the satellite’s sensitive technology from falling into the wrong hands.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT: I also, like you, read the blogs. There’s some question about the classified side of this. That is really not an issue.

Once you go through the atmosphere and the heating and the burning, that would not be an issue in this case. It would not justify using a missile to take it and break it up further.

MARGARET WARNER: The Navy will use a ship-based missile, called the SM-3, for the job, launched off one of two guided missile cruisers in the Pacific off the Hawaii coast.

The missile carries a non-explosive warhead that will strike the satellite and destroy it through the force of collision, as shown in this animation from Analytical Graphics, Inc.

The shoot-down was originally planned for today, but weather delayed the operation. It will be rescheduled when conditions are right, but must be done by the first week of March.

Satellite needs to be "de-orbited"

Henry Cooper
Former Defense Department Official
I believe they are correct, that they're working to reduce the risk to people on Earth from a satellite which could be de-orbited. We weren't able to do this in the past; we can do it now. And I think it's a useful enterprise.

MARGARET WARNER: And for a flavor of the debate over this impending shoot-down, we turn to Ambassador Henry Cooper, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative during the first Bush administration, and the top U.S. space arms negotiator during the Reagan administration. He's now chairman of High Frontier, a non-profit group that promotes missile defense.

And Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, a former science adviser to the Navy, he's written extensively about missile defense technology.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Ambassador Cooper, let's start out with the basic question: Is this a good idea? Are the Pentagon and the president right to shoot this thing down?

AMBASSADOR HENRY COOPER, Former Defense and State Department Official: I believe they are correct, that they're working to reduce the risk to people on Earth from a satellite which could be de-orbited. We weren't able to do this in the past; we can do it now. And I think it's a useful enterprise.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this isn't the first malfunctioning satellite we've ever heard of. What usually happens when they either go defunct or just run out of their natural life?

HENRY COOPER: Well, one of the things that's unusual in this case is that the NRO doesn't have control.

MARGARET WARNER: What's the NRO?

HENRY COOPER: The National Reconnaissance Office. It's their satellite. They don't really have control of the satellite, so they can't pick the time and place to de-orbit the satellite. That's unpredictable. And therein lies the uncertainty in this case.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because this satellite failed, essentially the whole power system went down almost from the time it began orbiting?

HENRY COOPER: I don't know the details, but I would presume that's the case. In any case, at some point it will reach the Earth's atmosphere and decelerate. And from that point on, maybe you could predict it. But that's the reason for the timing requirements that the Pentagon is pursuing.

Questions about hydrazine

Theodore Postol
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
If you want to argue that you're shooting at this satellite, the argument for shooting at the satellite is not justified based on the argument that the hydrazine presents a threat to people on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Professor Postol, I gather you don't think this is a good idea.

THEODORE POSTOL, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Well, I don't think the idea has any technical merit. What you have is a vehicle that's in space. It's built as light as it possibly can be, because it's a satellite designed to just be in space.

When this thing hits the upper atmosphere, large pieces of it are going to burn up. Now, there will be big pieces that survive to the ground, but the idea that this hydrazine tank will survive to the ground really makes no sense.

Let me just give you an example. This hydrazine tank is going to decelerate at a rate of -- let me just use the numbers -- 50 Gs. I just did the calculations before the program.

What that means is I take this spherical hydrazine tank and I accelerate it from rest to 1,000 miles per hour in one second. Now, this gossamer tank, this spherical tank is going to squash up and break open.

And it's going to be -- the hydrazine is going to behave like a snowball fired out of a cannon. It's just going to spray all over the place, stop in the upper atmosphere probably at an altitude of 60 or 70 miles, and it's never going to reach the ground.

There will be pieces of the satellite that reach the ground, but the hydrazine is never going to come close to the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, General Cartwright, who we had in the little tape there, said, well, you know, if it were to hit the ground, the dispersal would be about the size of two football fields and anyone who breathed it would have real lung damage and that prolonged exposure could lead to death. Are you saying that's absolutely impossible to happen or that it's a risk worth taking?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I wouldn't say it's absolutely impossible, nor would I say it's a risk worth taking. I'm saying that it's extremely improbable that this stuff will reach the ground.

And if you want to argue that you're shooting at this satellite, the argument for shooting at the satellite is not justified based on the argument that the hydrazine presents a threat to people on the ground.

You don't know where the big pieces from this satellite are going to fall in either case. And although there's a low chance of there being damage on the ground or individuals being injured or killed, the piece of it that's associated with this solid hydrazine container is a near-zero probability to play a significant role. It's just...

Political considerations a factor?

Theodore Postol
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This is a bus-sized object. And the kill vehicle is maybe a 50-pound kill vehicle that's fairly compact. So it's sort of like shooting an empty soda can with a bullet.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just play devil's advocate with you here. What is the risk of doing this? Why not do it?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, I think the risk is really -- if you want to call it a risk -- I think the international repercussions are quite serious.

I think people who look at this from a political point of view will see this, as I believe it probably is, an attempt by the United States government to show the world that it's got a large-scale, operating, low-altitude, anti-satellite capability.

Bear in mind that the ships that are going to launch this interceptor are widely dispersed around the world. The United States is in the process of deploying more of these ships armed with these interceptors. And the interceptors themselves are going to be improved over time, carrying larger kill vehicles, and achieving higher speeds and thereby higher altitudes.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, let me get Ambassador Cooper back in this. Is that also one of the reasons for doing this?

HENRY COOPER: I don't know the details of why the Pentagon might have chosen other than the ones they state, which is to protect the people on the ground from this object that's returning from space currently in an unpredictable way, and we have the means to alter that path.

Ted is right, in terms of the ships being deployed at sea. By the end of this year, there will be 18 Aegis cruisers and destroyers at sea that have ballistic missile defense capabilities.

And he didn't imply it, but it's certainly true that any defensive system that can shoot down a long-range ballistic missile can also shoot down a low Earth-orbiting satellite.

What is distinctive about the Navy system is that you can deploy it from a mobile platform, in places within the Pacific Ocean, and pick the place where you want to shoot it down, and give it the greatest chance of avoiding land and people.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But now, last year, the Chinese shot down a defunct weather satellite, and the U.S. was very critical of that, saying that they were essentially using an anti-satellite missile here.

HENRY COOPER: Well, they used a land-based interceptor. And they shot down the satellite at something on the order of 500-miles altitude, so the debris from that satellite was nowhere near the Earth's atmosphere, and much of it perhaps is still orbiting in space and will be for many years.

The point of the test -- not test, but the operation that's currently in place is to shoot down this satellite when it's about to re-enter. And so we're not going to be leaving for an extended period of time debris in space.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Postol, is your point that this will help, what, trigger a sort of arms race or an anti-arms race in anti-satellite technology?

THEODORE POSTOL: Well, you know, nothing is predictable in the real world of politics. But let me just make a comment about Hank's comment about shooting the satellite.

This is a bus-sized object. And the kill vehicle is maybe a 50-pound kill vehicle that's fairly compact. So it's sort of like shooting an empty soda can with a bullet. So you're going to cause damage to the structure, but you don't know where in the structure you're going to cause the damage.

And if the hydrazine tank was a threat, as claimed -- and I don't think it is -- you would have a high chance of missing it. So it's a little bit unclear how effective you could be with shooting this thing, even if you succeed, although I do think you might succeed.

Now, the question of the Chinese and the Russians is that I think this has some chance of provoking a response from the Chinese and Russians.

I actually think that the more likely response at this point is to try to play it cool, because there's a new administration coming, whatever that administration will be -- whether Republican or Democratic -- and I think the Chinese and Russians will pretty much bet that a new administration will be more sensible in the way they approach these matters.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me give Ambassador Cooper the last word here in the brief time.

HENRY COOPER: Well, let me just say that I believe that the ballistic missile defense programs are useful, important, and it's an inherent capability of ballistic missile defense systems to have this capability to shoot down satellites.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, what do you think the Chinese and the Russians are going to do?

HENRY COOPER: Oh, with the Russians and the Chinese, I really don't know what they're going to do. Much of this argument is highly political. They understand the technical facts as well as we.

Russia has ABM systems deployed around Moscow. They're nuclear, of course, but they have an inherent capability against satellites, as well, if they wish to use them that way. So in much of this case, I believe this argument is political, rather than substantive.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, thank you both for a substantive argument. Ambassador Cooper...

THEODORE POSTOL: Can I...

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Postol, I'm so sorry, but we're out of time. But thanks a lot.

THEODORE POSTOL: That's OK. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Bye-bye.

HENRY COOPER: Thank you, Margaret.