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Window to Open for Satellite Shoot-Down, Gates to Issue Order

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2008 – The anticipated landing tomorrow of the space shuttle Atlantis will open the window of opportunity for the U.S. military to shoot down a dying intelligence satellite headed toward Earth, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.

President Bush has authorized Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to give the shoot-down order, and the secretary received a briefing on the plan today, Morrell said. The secretary is prepared to make that call from the road, if necessary, during his nine-day, around-the-world trip that begins tomorrow, he said.

Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week the window of opportunity for shooting down the satellite would last seven or eight days.

“We have a pretty wide aperture with which to take this shot,” Morrell said today. “I think the commanders that are evaluating this are looking at all the conditions that could impact this to make sure that when we do take this shot, it can be as successful as possible.”

Cartwright, Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and other experts across the military and U.S. government “are evaluating the situation and will advise the secretary when they have a shot to take,” Morrell said.

Pentagon officials began studying the situation in early January when it become clear that a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite could cause death or injury if it fell in a populated area. Of particular concern is that the satellite could release hydrazine, a toxic chemical used as a maneuvering fuel.

A Pentagon plan was put together to strike the incoming satellite just above the atmosphere, rupturing the hydrazine tank in the process.

All systems appear to be “go” for the launch order. The Navy has prepared for the mission by modifying three SM-3 missiles aboard Aegis ships to strike the satellite, Cartwright said last week.

The international community has been informed of the mission and why it’s being conducted, Morrell said. “So I think everybody is up to date on what our thinking is and what our course of action is going to be, and we will keep them apprised of how it develops over the coming days,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration today issued a 24-hour notice warning aircraft and ships to steer clear of the projected shoot-down zone in the Pacific. New warnings will be issued every 24 hours during the anticipated shoot-down window, Morrell said.

The Pentagon will issue a written statement within an hour of the launch and will hold a news conference regarding the effort within the following hours, Morrell told reporters. “We can probably tell you at that point whether or not there has been an intercept,” but not necessarily if it destroyed the fuel tank, he said. “That may require some additional time,” he acknowledged.

Cartwright and other commanders associated with the mission “have a high confidence this engagement will indeed be successful, and I think Secretary Gates shares that confidence,” Morrell told reporters.

Morrell emphasized that the mission isn’t designed to test U.S. anti-satellite capabilities. “We did that in 1985. Been there, done that,” he said.

“This operation is designed to alleviate a threat to human beings on this planet. There is a large tank of hydrazine fuel onboard that satellite that would pose a significant threat to people within the immediate vicinity of it if it were to hit land,” Morrell said. “So not wishing to take that risk, the president has asked -- ordered -- this department to shoot down that satellite.

“And that is what we are now evaluating,” he continued, “and that is what the secretary will decide to do, based upon the advice of the commanders.”

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