The missile fired from a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific Ocean that hit a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite late Wednesday likely accomplished its goal of destroying the satellite's toxic fuel tank, a senior U.S. military officer said in Washington Thursday.
Preliminary reports indicate the SM-3 missile struck its primary target, which was a tank full of toxic hydrazine rocket fuel carried aboard the satellite, James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
"The intercept occurred ... We're very confident that we hit the satellite," Cartwright said. "We also have a high degree of confidence that we got the tank."
Video shown to reporters depicts the satellite exploding at the point of contact with the missile. Cartwright said the visible fireball and the vapor cloud or plume around it suggest that the fuel tank was hit and the hydrazine had burned up.
However, he added, it probably would take another 24 to 48 hours of sifting through data "to get to a point where we are very comfortable with our analysis that we indeed breached the tank."
Radar sweeps of the satellite's debris field thus far show that no parts larger than a football survived the strike, Cartwright said.
Post-strike surveillance shows satellite debris falling into the atmosphere above the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, he said. Small remnants are likely to burn up in the atmosphere, never making it to the Earth's surface.
The U.S. State Department has provided updates on the situation to its embassies around the world, Cartwright noted. There are no reports of debris reaching the Earth, he said, adding that consequence-management crews are on standby to respond to such a circumstance, if required.
The SM-3 missile was launched by the USS Lake Erie, positioned northwest of Hawaii, at 10:26 p.m. EST Wednesday (0326 GMT Thursday).
The satellite malfunctioned soon after it was launched in 2006,making it unresponsive to ground control. The satellite, if left alone, was expected to fall to Earth in February or March with its tank of hydrazine intact, possibly endangering human populations.