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WHEN MISSILE HIT ITS MARK, IT ALSO STARTED A DEBATE

Some critics say the mission was more of a space weaponry test than a safety measure.

Videotape of the Navy mission to shoot down a dying spy satellite, which was made available Thursday, shows an interceptor missile ascending atop a bright trail of burning fuel and then a flash, a fireball and a plume of vapor.

A cloud of debris left little doubt that the missile had hit its mark as the satellite spent its final days orbiting more than 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean, though Gen. James Cartwright said Thursday it could be 24 to 48 hours before the military knows whether its tank of toxic fuel was destroyed. A quick response team stood on alert to head anyplace the pieces of the satellite might fall.

A different kind of doubt lingered, though, expressed by policy analysts, some politicians and scientists, and some foreign powers, especially China and Russia:

Should the world's people be relieved that the risk has passed of a half-ton of frozen, toxic rocket fuel landing who knows where? Or should they worry about this display of America's technical prowess and see it as a test for a shadow antisatellite program?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who gave the order to proceed with the satellite shootdown on Wednesday, said Thursday that he was prepared to share some details of the operation with China to alleviate its concerns that the debris still may prove dangerous. Adm. Timothy Keating, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has reached out to several nations in the region to explain the mission.

Senior officials dismissed questions raised by the Chinese and the Russians - and echoed by some arms control analysts - about whether the episode was really a test of space weaponry.

They pointed out that the missile used in the operation, the Navy's SM-3 interceptor, was designed to counter a limited ballistic missile attack and had to be reprogrammed for this unexpected task, the likes of which authorities are unlikely to face again.

In missile defense, an interceptor must find a red-hot enemy warhead as it arcs on a relatively short ballistic path - a task often described as "hitting a bullet with a bullet." This time, the target - much larger than a warhead, almost the size of a school bus - was circling the Earth predictably about 16 times a day.

It was still a bit of a long shot. The fuel tank - the bull's eye - was only about 40 inches across.

What Wednesday's successful strike proved was not infallibility but a robust and flexible military capability that can be cited by either side in what no doubt will be the ensuing debate.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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