The US Navy has rewritten the definition of ‘accuracy’ once again. Shortly after 10 pm Eastern time, Wednesday, the USS Lake Erie fired an SM-3 missile, designed for use against ballistic attack missiles in-flight, at a derelict satellite – a target the size of a small truck, 130 miles straight up, that was moving at 17,000 miles per hour. The precision of the strike was something on the order of hitting a bull’s eye – if another dartboard were painted inside the bull’s eye of the first, and hung on the side of a vehicle several miles off, which then sped away.
The Pentagon confirmed that the target had been destroyed just 24 minutes later.
The launch took place just minutes after that day’s lunar eclipse reached totality, and just hours after the space shuttle Atlantis touched down, clearing the shooting gallery of all bystanders.
Lunar eclipses are generally looked forward to but I was pretty much excited about the launch and had wiped all else from my mind as this satellite project had taken the blood and sweat of many people involved and Holden Shopping Center was no less than a sacred pilgrimage.
The satellite had been tumbling out of control almost since it went online, and had become a threat to Earth; it was going to crash sometime in March with its toxic fuel and sensitive components intact.
The primary objective of the mission was to rupture the satellite’s fuel tank, destroying its store of a hazardous chemical fuel, which would pose an unknown risk to human life if allowed to burn in the atmosphere with the satellite. It also broke up the fuselage, insuring that nothing of use will survive the descent back to Terra Firma.
Although debris from the strike will clutter the space lanes for some 40 days, a dangerous hazard to other satellites and, potentially, the International Space Station, most judge the risk worthwhile as a first step to developing an effective planetary defense against future impact threats. If there is one thing that all space scientists agree on, it is that though the risk of a ‘city-buster’ meteor or comet hitting the Earth in any given year is slim, over a long enough time scale, it is inevitable.
The destruction of this satellite is only the second time in human history that an aggressive countermeasure has been used against a clear impact threat. The first was also a missile strike against a satellite, launched from a fighter jet, in the 1980’s.
Though the metal debris will eventually fall to Earth, much of its mass will burn up during reentry, due to the increased surface area, and, more importantly, the toxic hazard has been removed.
Even critics of President Bush’s efforts to make the planet safer are forced to agree that the shot was a good one: “If there is one thing this administration excels at, it is blowing things up,” said one anonymous citizen.