An attempt to blast a crippled U.S. spy satellite out of the sky using a Navy heat-seeking missile - possibly tonight - would be the first real-world use of this piece of the Pentagon's missile defense network. But that is not the mission for which it was intended.
The three-stage Navy missile, designated the SM-3, has chalked up a high rate of success in a series of tests since 2002 - in each case targeting a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, never a satellite. An expedited program to adapt the missile for this antisatellite mission was completed in a matter of weeks. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell estimated the cost of the adaptation at $30-million to $40-million.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates "is the one who will decide if and when to pull the trigger," Morrell said, adding that Gates will travel today to Honolulu, where a military command center will monitor the satellite operation.
The government issued notices to aviators and mariners to remain clear of a section of the Pacific beginning at 9:30 p.m. EST today, indicating the first window of opportunity to launch an SM-3 missile from a Navy cruiser, the USS Lake Erie, in an effort to hit the wayward satellite.
Complicating the effort will be the fact that the satellite has no heat-generating propulsion system on board. That makes it more difficult for the Navy missile's heat-seeking system to work.
Having lost power shortly after it reached orbit in late 2006, the satellite is well below the altitude of a normal satellite. The Pentagon wants to hit it with an SM-3 missile just before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere to minimize the debris that would remain in space.
Left alone, the satellite would be expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft would be expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would scatter debris over several hundred miles.
China and Russia have expressed concern at the plan, saying it could harm security in outer space. At the State Department on Tuesday, spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. action is meant to protect people from hazardous fuel on the satellite and is not a weapons test.
China was criticized last year when it used a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite.
The Navy ship-based system, which includes a command-and-control and radar system known as Aegis, as well as the SM-3 missiles, is just one segment of a larger, far-flung missile defense system that has been in development by the American military for more than three decades.
Managed by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, the program includes interceptor missiles sitting in underground silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as well as radars around the world to track an enemy missile and help the interceptor hit it.
As currently configured, the missile defense system is designed mainly to counter a threat from North Korea. The Bush administration, fearing an emerging missile threat from Iran, is in talks with Poland and the Czech Republic to place interceptor missiles in Poland and tracking radar in the Czech Republic.