US bid to shoot down satellite 'a safety precaution'

The Bush administration is trying to convince foreign countries that the US Defence Department’s plan to shoot down a dying spy satellite is not a military test.

The Bush administration is trying to convince foreign countries that the US Defence Department’s plan to shoot down a dying spy satellite is not a military test.

The State Department has instructed US diplomats around the world to inform their host governments that the operation, which might be conducted as early as next week, will be aimed solely at protecting people who could be affected by 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel on the bus-sized satellite now hurtling towards Earth.

“Our role is to reassure nations around the world as to the nature of what we are tying to do,” spokesman Sean McCormack said today. “It’s an attempt to try to protect populations on the ground.”

In a message sent to all US embassies abroad, diplomats were told to draw a clear distinction between the coming attempt and last year’s test by China of a missile specifically designed to take out satellites, which was criticised by the US and other countries.

“This particular action is different than any actions that, for example, the Chinese may have taken in testing an anti-satellite weapon,” Mr McCormack told reporters. “The missions are quite different and the technical aspects of the missions are quite different.”

Other than intent, he said the key difference is that the Pentagon’s planned shoot-down will be done at a much lower altitude than that of the Chinese, whose 2007 destruction of a satellite left a large debris-field in orbit.

The US plan, it is expected, will leave little in the way of debris that could complicate efforts to place future satellites in orbit.

US officials said the satellite is carrying fuel called hydrazine that could injure or even kill people who are near it when it hits the ground. That reason alone, they said, persuaded President George Bush to order the shoot-down.

The Pentagon has predicted it has as high as an 80% chance of hitting the satellite with a single missile fired from a US Navy cruiser in the northern Pacific Ocean when the satellite is about 150 miles up and before it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

If the missile misses, there may be a second shot, officials say.

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.

Known by its military designation US 193, the satellite was launched in December 2006. It lost power and its central computer failed almost immediately afterwards, leaving it uncontrollable. It carried a sophisticated and secret imaging sensor.

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