WASHINGTON -- A missile launched from a Navy cruiser soared 130 miles above the Pacific and smashed a dying and potentially deadly U.S. spy satellite Wednesday, the Pentagon said. Several defense officials said it apparently achieved the main aim of destroying an onboard tank of toxic fuel.
Officials had expressed cautious optimism that the missile would hit the satellite, which was the size of a school bus. But they were less certain of hitting the smaller, more worrisome fuel tank, whose contents posed what Bush administration officials deemed a potential health hazard to humans if it landed intact.
In a statement announcing that the attack on the satellite, the Pentagon said, "Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours." It made no mention of early indications, but several defense officials close to the situation said later that all indications point to the destruction of the fuel tank. One explained that observers saw what appeared to be an explosion, indicating that the tank was hit.
Because the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude at the time it was hit by the missile, debris will begin to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere immediately, the Pentagon statement said.
"Nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days," it said.