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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

NRO satellite to be intercepted and destroyed in orbit.

19 February, 2008
A 2 ton intelligence satellite launched in 2006 will be intercepted by an Aegis missile defence system carrying SM-3 missiles to destroy it in flight and prevent its toxic fuel from threatening life on earth.
Hitting an extremely fast and very small target 160 miles above the earth's surface is no simple task but this is what is planned to happen at an as yet unspecified date before the end of the month. The choice of date is based on two factors: the first is that the satellite is likely to plunge to the earth's surface sometime during march. The second is that they want it to be lower than the International Space Station at the time of intercept so that any resulting debris doesn't create a risk to the ISS. This is something the Chinese didn't take into account last year when they destroyed one of their own satellites, the debris of which is still hanging over the space station.

In a press release today, Mike Terrill of the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance said that they're destroying the satellite so that it doesn't present any danger to human life. Unlikely to burn up entirely on re-entry, the satellite's fuel tank is however likely to be breached releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Although the affected area of the fuel is likely to be small, they want to take no risks. Not knowing where it will fall and what condition it will be in when it hits the surface, the best course of action is to intercept and destroy it.

So, coming back to the opening sentence, its very small and very fast so what if they miss? The opinions of experts disagree on this point with a NASA administrator commenting that the only risk involved the hydrazine fuel and that this is minimal. A US Defence expert, however believes that the risk is significant enough to warrant destroying it in orbit. Other observers describe the motives variously as political muscle flexing and a good opportunity to test Aegis at vast expense that would otherwise be difficult to justify.

If they succeed, we'll never know whether it was justified or not. If they don't succeed, keep your eye on the skies until March is over.
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