Official says little debris created from shot satellite

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The shooting apart of a crippled U.S. spy satellite last month created no significant new space debris, with all but small bits burning on re-entry to the atmosphere, the mission commander said Wednesday.

The USS Lake Erie launches a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean February 20, 2008 in this handout photo released by the U.S. Defense Department. REUTERS/Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Navy/Handout

“We thought there would be much larger pieces,” Rear Admiral Alan Hicks, who heads the Pentagon’s Aegis ballistic missile defense program, said in the most comprehensive report yet on the destruction of the satellite known as USA-193.

In fact, none of the debris was larger than a football, he told a briefing at an annual conference of the U.S. Navy League, a booster group for the navy.

“That was a very very good thing,” Hicks said, citing the force of a collision at about 22,000 miles per hour (35,000 km per hour) between the satellite, tumbling and rolling in decaying orbit, and the Raytheon Co ship-launched Standard Missile-3 that slammed into its fuel tank.

The Bush administration has said its goal was to protect populated areas from the spacecraft’s unused supply of deadly hydrazine propellant by destroying it in space. Minimizing the debris field was a secondary objective, he said.

“We achieved both,” said Hicks, of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

The satellite and its fuel tank were destroyed on February 20 153 miles over the Pacific using arms designed for the ship-based leg of a multibillion-dollar shield against ballistic missiles.

Thirteen months before, China used one of its aging weather satellites, in polar orbit at 530 miles, for target practice.

The U.S. Air Force Space Command said last April the resulting debris increased the risk of a collision with a spacecraft by up to 40 percent in some orbits.

Of the debris from USA-193, Hicks said: “There’s very little left up there of any size. We’re down to where there are very very small particles that will burn off as they come down in the atmosphere.”

In addition, no reports had been received of any USA-193 shards landing on earth, he said.

Although the satellite shoot-up showed the flexibility of Aegis ballistic missile defense, it was a one-time mission, he said.

Hicks said about 250 people took part in planning and rehearsing starting about six weeks before the interception took place. They used a wide range of radar and other sensors around the world to maximize the chance of a bulls-eye while minimizing space debris, he said.

The Bush administration has insisted it was not trying to show off anti-satellite capabilities of the Lockheed Martin Corp-built Aegis ballistic missile defense, although experts said the event’s effect was just that.

Hicks said the biggest lesson was the gains to be had from stitching together data from sensors “that normally don’t work together on a daily basis.”

“When you bring them together, and you can coordinate them, integrate them, you can get a lot more value added.”

Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Tim Dobbyn