You’re waking up to the exciting news that a falling satellite has been shot out of the sky, thus preventing a potentially dangerous crash landing, with a potentially dangerous release of toxic gas. The Pentagon is proudly showing off the video. On television, it will likely be the most played clip of the day. You can expect much hyperventilated cheerleading from the usual professional hairpieces. But there’s one aspect to the story that I don’t expect the TV news to cover. It’s tucked in this New York Times report:
Completing a mission in which an interceptor designed for missile defense was used for the first time to attack a satellite, the Lake Erie, an Aegis-class cruiser, fired a single missile just before 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, and the missile hit the satellite as it traveled at more than 17,000 miles per hour, the Pentagon said in its official announcement.
It almost sounds good. As if the most expensive weapons system in human history was finally being put to positive use. But what if that was the purpose, all along? Two days ago, the science journal Nature had this:
A plan by the US government to shoot down an out-of-control spy satellite has been described as a cynical tit-for-tat move in response to China doing the same last year. Scientists and arms-control experts fear that the operation will create damaging debris and weaken international efforts to ban space weaponry.
On 14 February, officials from the Pentagon, White House and NASA announced plans to use a ship-based missile to strike the satellite as it passes roughly 240 kilometres overhead. The satellite, which belongs to the National Reconnaissance Office in Virginia, dropped out of control after its launch in December 2006, and would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere around early March if no action were taken.
The strike is necessary to prevent the dispersal of around 450 kilograms of hazardous hydrazine thruster fuel onboard, according to James Jeffrey, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser. If the fuel survived re-entry, it could be dispersed over an area of roughly 20,000 square metres, although “the likelihood of the satellite falling in a populated area is small,” he says. “Nevertheless, if the satellite did fall in a populated area, there was the possibility of death or injury to human beings.” The Pentagon denies that the shoot-down is to protect classified technologies on the satellite.
But scientists familiar with both satellite re-entry and the US missile defence system question the decision. The chances that the tank, which is 1 metre in diameter, will survive and strike land are extremely small, says Geoffrey Forden, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Most likely it will land in the ocean,” he says. The reasons given for the plan “don’t sound too credible to me”, he adds. “I think they’re doing it mainly to tell the Chinese that we can blow up a satellite too,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This gives the US cover to carry out a test.”
And I’m guessing that the corporate media will do their job to ensure that such cover is provided.