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Union of Concerned Scientists: US Attempt to Shoot Down Satellite Undermines Efforts to Ban Space Weapons, Reduces US Security

February 20, 2008
1:25 PM

CONTACT: Union of Concerned Scientists
Aaron Huertas, 202-331-5458 (o), 202-236-8495 (c)

US Attempt to Shoot Down Satellite Undermines Efforts to Ban Space Weapons, Reduces US Security, Science Group Says

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - February 20 - The Bush administration's attempt to shoot down a damaged spy satellite will undermine efforts to protect the future use of space and ultimately weaken U.S. security, according to a space expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

As early as tomorrow night, a U.S. Navy warship will fire an Aegis-LEAP missile defense system interceptor to try to shatter the USA 193 satellite into small pieces that will burn up during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

"The potential political cost of shooting down this satellite is high," said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with UCS's Global Security Program. "Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon is counterproductive to U.S. long-term interests, given that the United States has the most to gain from an international space weapons ban. Instead, it should be taking the lead in negotiating a treaty."

Pentagon officials say they are concerned that the fuel tank on the satellite containing toxic hydrazine will survive reentry, and that it could pose a health hazard if it lands in a populated area. Without intervention, the satellite would hit the Earth's surface by early March. While it is difficult to assess the risk of injury to people on the ground from publicly available information, Grego said, the risk appears to be small.

What is not in doubt is that this intercept attempt -- especially if it is successful -- will make safeguarding satellites more difficult in the long run, she said.

"If the Pentagon demonstrates that its missile defense systems can destroy satellites, it will be very difficult to convince other countries that they shouldn't develop a similar anti-satellite capability," Grego said. "Moreover, concern that the United States has this offensive capability deployed around the world will likely complicate relations with Russian and China." Both countries have criticized the planned satellite shoot-down.

Not only has the United States failed to lead efforts to prevent the development, deployment and use of anti-satellite systems, it has for many years opposed international efforts to do so, Grego pointed out. Just last week the Bush administration rejected a draft treaty presented at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament that would ban space weapons and prohibit attacking satellites from the ground or space.

The United States is increasingly dependent on satellites for a wide range of civilian and military uses, including communications, navigation and reconnaissance. These satellites are vulnerable to attack and disruption because they can be seen and easily tracked in space.

Destroying satellites with high-speed collisions creates huge amounts of orbital debris. In January 2007, for example, a Chinese anti-satellite weapon test against a relatively small satellite generated millions of pieces of debris. Because the satellite USA 193 is at a relatively low altitude -- about 140 miles above the Earth -- the debris from a successful intercept would fall out of orbit in a matter of days. But destroying satellites at higher altitudes would produce debris that would remain in orbit for decades or centuries and threaten operating satellites.

What are the odds that the Navy will hit the satellite? Because the satellite is traveling more than twice the speed of the mock warheads the Aegis interceptor has faced in missile defense tests, the success rate in those tests is not a good predictor for this situation, Grego said. On the other hand, the 5,000-pound satellite is considerably larger than the mock warheads, which should make hitting the satellite somewhat easier.

Whether or not the Aegis missile hits the satellite, the demonstration will tell us little about the effectiveness of the Aegis system against an actual missile strike, Grego said. The satellite does not have decoys or other countermeasures, and its trajectory and the time of the engagement are known in advance, none of which would be expected in a real-world attack.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has offices in Berkeley, California, and Washington, D.C. For more information, go to


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