WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The missile fired from a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific Ocean that hit a malfunctioning U.S. reconnaissance satellite late yesterday likely accomplished its goal of destroying the satellite's toxic fuel tank, a senior U.S. military officer said here today.
Preliminary reports indicate the SM-3 missile struck its primary target, which was a tank full of toxic hydrazine rocket fuel carried aboard the 5,000-pound satellite, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
"The intercept occurred. ... We're very confident that we hit the satellite," Cartwright said. "We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank."
Video shown to reporters depicts the satellite exploding at the point of contact with the missile. Cartwright said the visible fireball and the vapor cloud or plume around it suggest that the fuel tank was hit and the hydrazine had burned up.
"The high-definition imagery that we have indicates that we hit the spacecraft right in the area of the tank," Cartwright said.
However, he added, it probably would take another 24 to 48 hours of sifting through data "to get to a point where we are very comfortable with our analysis that we indeed breached the tank."
Radar sweeps of the satellite's debris field thus far show that no parts larger than a football survived the strike, Cartwright said. Post-strike surveillance shows satellite debris falling into the atmosphere above the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, he said. Small remnants are likely to burn up in the atmosphere, never making it to the Earth's surface.
The U.S. State Department has provided updates on the situation to its embassies around the world, Cartwright noted. There are no reports of debris reaching the Earth, he said, adding that consequence-management crews are on standby to respond to such a circumstance, if required.
The SM-3 missile was launched by the USS Lake Erie, positioned northwest of Hawaii, at 10:26 p.m. EST yesterday, Cartwright said. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is on an overseas trip, gave the go-ahead to fire, Cartwright said.
The missile intercepted the satellite about 153 nautical miles above the Earth, just before it began to enter the atmosphere, Cartwright said. Joint Space Operations Center technicians at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., confirmed the satelitte's breakup about 24 minutes later.
The National Reconnaissance Office-managed satellite malfunctioned soon after it was launched in 2006, making it unresponsive to ground control. The satellite, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes or so, was expected to fall to Earth in February or March with its tank of hydrazine intact, possibly endangering human populations.
President Bush directed the Defense Department to engage the satellite just before it entered the atmosphere. U.S. officials decided to shoot down the satellite because of the danger posed by the hazardous hydrazine, Cartwright explained, noting the goal was for the missile to hit and rupture the tank of rocket fuel, causing the hydrazine to burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere, along with debris from the stricken satellite.
"So, you can imagine at the point of intercept last night there were a few cheers from people who have spent many days working on this project," Cartwright said.