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

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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    And finally tonight, shooting down a satellite. Margaret Warner has that story.


    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.


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


    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.


    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.

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