Almost seven years to the day Russian space station Mir was de-orbited and fell to Earth over the South Pacific Ocean in March 2001, the U.S. Navy will fire a missile at a failing spy satellite in an attempt to break it apart while it is still high above the atmosphere.
 
Known as USA 193, the 10,000-lb, school-bus sized spy satellite was launched Dec. 14, 2006 but never reached final orbit because its central computer failed. Unresponsive to telemetry, the satellite was unmaneuverable, and its orbit is now decaying so rapidly that it is expected to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in mid-March. 

The plan is to fire a modified SM-3 ABM at the satellite from the Aegis cruiser U.S.S. Lake Erie in the northern Pacific Ocean and break it apart using the force of the collision while it is still 150 miles above the Earth. The Pentagon estimates the odds of hitting the satellite are as high as 80 percent, but will be prepared to fire a second missile at the target just in case. 

Timing is also an issue: No action can be taken until the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis lands later in the week. 

Should the satellite fall to Earth of its own accord, its fuel tanks – holding 1,000 pounds of hydrazine – would likely survive re-entry, spewing toxic fumes across a wide area. 

USA 193 makes 16 orbits around the Earth each day, and you can follow its descent on the Heavens Above Web site. Space.com’s Joe Rao offers tips on how to distinguish USA 193 from other objects in the sky. 

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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