WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has issued aircraft advisories for a large area of the Pacific Ocean for the evenings of Feb. 20 and Feb. 21, setting off speculation that it will attempt to shoot down a wayward U.S. spy satellite on one or both of those nights.
During a press conference Feb. 14 announcing plans to try to down the satellite as a safety measure, senior U.S. government officials said the attempt would occur somewhere over the Pacific during a several-day window that opens when NASA's space shuttle returns from its current mission.
The space shuttle Atlantis will have its first of four landing opportunities Feb. 20 at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 9:07 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Two Airmen Notifications were issued by the military Feb. 19 instructing aviators to stay clear of a large area west of Hawaii over the Pacific Ocean between the hours of 9:30 p.m. eastern time Feb. 20 and 12:00 a.m. Feb. 21; and for the same 150-minute window Feb. 21-22.
U.S. government officials said that if the first intercept is unsuccessful, there could be a second attempt within two days.
Ted Molczan, a satellite watcher who has been watching the failed spy satellite closely since its launch in 2006, has calculated it will pass directly over the area specified in the notifications for about three minutes around 10:30 p.m. eastern time Feb. 20.
A U.S. Navy Aegis ship will fire a modified Standard Missile 3 interceptor at the out-of-control satellite, which otherwise would re-enter the atmosphere on its own sometime in the next few weeks. U.S. government officials say they are concerned that a tank full of toxic hydrazine fuel aboard the satellite will survive the re-entry, with the resulting fumes potentially causing injury or death in the unlikely event that the tank falls on a populated area.
If the satellite — or more precisely, the hydrazine tank — is destroyed by the impact of the missile before re-entry, U.S. officials say, the fuel will either burn up or dissipate in the atmosphere, posing no threat.
Defense Department officials have not confirmed that the notifications correlate with shoot-down attempts. Calls placed with several Pentagon agencies were not returned immediately.