Washington The United States will try to shoot down a disabled spy satellite that's expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere within the next two weeks, the Pentagon said Thursday, marking the first time the military will use its missile defense program to attempt to bring down a satellite.
Military officials said President Bush ordered the Navy to try to bring down the satellite because the chemicals aboard could endanger populated areas. Of particular concern are the 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, an ammonia-like component of rocket fuel that's highly toxic if inhaled or swallowed.
Congressional leaders who were briefed on the plan generally approved, though the idea of blasting a satellite from orbit is controversial. Last year, U.S. officials were critical when China destroyed a satellite with a missile.
"I am satisfied that the destruction of the malfunctioning satellite is the best option available to protect public safety," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "However, it should be understood by all, at home and abroad, that this is an exceptional circumstance and should not be perceived as the standard U.S. policy for dealing with errant satellites."
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a Navy cruiser would try to hit the satellite with a Standard Missile 3, which is designed to bring down ballistic missiles.
The decision about when to launch the missile will depend on where Pentagon planners think the satellite will land if it's hit.
"We'll take one shot and assess," Cartwright said.
Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey said that the United States is notifying scores of countries of its plans.
Cartwright refused to say who built the satellite or its purpose, but he said that military controllers lost contact with it within hours of its launch in December 2006.
Various aviation publications said that Lockheed Martin built the satellite at a cost of several hundred million dollars for the National Reconnaissance Office, the government agency that manages many of the nation's spy satellites. Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Manor declined to provide additional details.