Pearl-Based Ship May Shoot Down Spy Satellite

Published: Feb. 15, 2008 at 6:22 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2008 at 6:36 PM HST
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Gen. James Cartwright
Gen. James Cartwright
Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin

By Jamie McIntyre

WASHINGTON, DC (CNN) -- A Pearl Harbor-based ship is getting ready for a first-of-it's-kind mission. It might get a chance to try and shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite, just before it crashes to earth. And it just so happens, the bus sized satellite, is carrying a potentially toxic load of fuel.

Sometime next week, a US Navy standard missile fired from the aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie in the northern Pacific will -- for first time -- attempt to hit a satellite the size of a bus that's tumbling toward Earth laden with 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine.

The US spy satellite never used the fuel because it failed almost as soon at it was launched 15 months ago.

"That's what distinguishes this particular activity is we have no way to communicate to invoke the safety measures that already on board the Bird" said General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

With three quarters of the Earth water, and with large parts of the land uninhabited, the chances are slim the satellite would kill anyone. But there is a danger:

The problem is not so much the 5,000 pound satellite -- but the 1,000 pounds of unburned fuel, which could cover 200 yards:

"It's hard to find areas that have any significant population to them where you could put a toxic substance down across a couple of football fields and not have somebody at risk" said Michael Griffin of NASA.

And even if the missile misses there's no real downside.

"So there is almost nothing we can do here that makes it worse. Almost everything we can do technically makes it better, which was a very strong factor weighting the decision" said Griffin.

NASA says space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station will not be in significant added danger, during this effort.