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Bush orders US Navy to shoot down rogue spy sat

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The US Navy will attempt to shoot down a malfunctioning American spy satellite before it falls to Earth, the Pentagon has confirmed. The plan has been approved by President George Bush, citing concern over toxic hydrazine fuel aboard the spacecraft. However, a top analyst has suggested the US is actually worried about secret technology winding up for sale on the web.

American officials confirming the shootdown plan last night said the Presidential decision was based entirely on the fact that the satellite still carries a full tank of manoeuvring fuel, having never been used. The spacecraft failed to come on line after being launched, and is now slowing down and descending due to friction from the upper atmosphere. At some point over the next few weeks, the gradual descent process will escalate quite suddenly and it will plunge to Earth.

"This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings... the likelihood of the satellite falling in a populated area is small, and the extent and duration of toxic hydrazine in the atmosphere would be limited,” said James F Jeffrey, deputy US national security adviser.

"Nevertheless, if the satellite did fall in a populated area, there is the possibility of death or injury to human beings."

Normally, such secret spy sats use the last of their fuel at the end of their useful lives to make a controlled re-entry into the ocean, safeguarding their technology from prying eyes and avoiding any risks to human life.

US Marine general James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said three US Navy Aegis warships were being positioned ready to shoot at the satellite. He said the ships are carrying Standard SM-3 ballistic-missile-defence interceptor rockets with specially modified software. According to Cartwright, the window of opportunity to pick off the satellite would open in "three or four" days, and would remain open for "seven or eight" days after that.

"We'll take one shot and assess," he added. "This is the first time we've used a tactical missile to engage a spacecraft."

The general dismissed the idea that the satellite's secret systems were a concern.

"Our assessment is that [the satellite] wouldn't be of high intel value... the hydrazine is the only reason we're taking extraordinary measures," he stated.

The US officials also said there was no comparison with last year's anti-satellite test by the People's Republic of China, in which the Chinese shot at a satellite of theirs just to see if they could hit it. Mr Jeffrey said the debris from a successful US shootdown just above the atmosphere would burn up within a short period; whereas the Chinese test had produced a debris shower which would be a danger to space navigation for centuries.

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