US will clean up any debris from satellite shoot-down


Washington/Geneva : A day after the US military outlined a high-tech plan to shoot down a rogue spy satellite carrying toxic fuel, a US diplomat in Geneva pledged that the US would be responsible for any damage by debris to another country.

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Christina Rocca, the US permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament based in Geneva, Friday said the operation – which is to occur in the coming two weeks – would be timed to minimise the chance that any initial debris would impact a populated area.

The Pentagon plans to bring down the defective spy satellite using a tactical standard missle-3 fired from a shipboard Aegis system deployed somewhere in the northern Pacific. The event would be an all-time first, using the experience of anti-missile tests.

The satellite has about 450 kg of hydrazine fuel, which could be lethal if inhaled in high concentrations that could spread over two football fields.

The Pentagon lost communication with the satellite shortly after launch in December 2006, putting it out of reach of ground controllers who could have brought it down safely, defence officials said in Washington.

Without intervention, the satellite would enter Earth’s atmosphere on or around March 6 as its orbit decays, and land anywhere on Earth, Rocca said.

She mentioned the broad span between 58.5 degrees north latitude, across northern Canada and central Russia – and 58.5 degrees south, across the southern Pacific Ocean between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

Her appearance, which she said was “in the interests of transparency”, was part of a worldwide diplomatic rollout by the US government after US President George W. Bush made the decision to shoot down the satellite.

If the missile strike fails, she said, the US would provide any assistance necessary to national governments on whose territory any debris landed.

The US would also be liable for any damage caused as under the terms of the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.

“This is an emergency response to prevent the possible loss of life. This engagement is not part of an anti-satellite and testing programme,” Rocca said. The US did not intend to retain the technical capability resulting from the operation, she said.

When China launched an anti-satellite missile to destroy an ageing weather satellite in orbit in January 2007, the US, Japan and other countries lodged protests because it generated debris that remained in orbit over a wide range of Earth’s surface.

Bringing down the spy satellite will generate debris that will fall out of orbit within weeks, Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey said Thursday in Washington.

Both the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union experimented with anti-satellite missile technology in the 1980s but abandoned their programmes out of fear that debris from such explosions in space could damage other satellites.

Bush gave the go-ahead for shooting down the satellite because he “determined that protecting against the possible risk to human life was paramount”, Rocca said.