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U.S. Says Satellite Shootdown Offers Model of Transparency

The U.S. shootdown of a defunct spy satellite offers a model of transparency that should be adopted by other countries that are more secretive about their military operations, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command said today.

Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating drew that line of distinction between last night's mission in which the USA-193 satellite was intercepted and a seemingly similar act by the Chinese last year, according to the American Forces Press Service.

The spy satellite USA-193, also known as NROL-21, was launched aboard a Delta II rocket on Dec. 14, 2006, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Shortly after the satellite reached orbit, ground controllers lost contact with it.

"We've told people what we're going to do; we've told them how we're going to do it, and it's very open," Keating said.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the U.S. satellite shootdown was motivated by safety concerns or that it was a good idea.

The intentional destruction last January of China's Fengyun-1C weather satellite produced a flurry of concern over the hostile-or-not nature of the firing as well as a serious load of shrapnel littering Earth orbit. That debris is still in space, frustrating mission managers and satellite operators forced to dodge the potentially debilitating bits.

The Defense Department is currently monitoring the space debris from last night's interception, with no reports of debris larger than a football as yet.

In addition to the transparency, the rationale behind the two missions was distinctly different, Keating said. President Bush decided to shoot down the satellite after becoming convinced that the spacecraft's toxic hydrazine fuel posed an unacceptable risk to people on the ground, Keating said. The U.S. Navy fired a modified Standard Missile-3 at the satellite, whereas the Chinese exercise was designed to test an anti-satellite weapon.

"We would hope that they can see how to do an operation like this, emphasizing the transparency, emphasizing clear intentions, realizing that while we don't have press embedded on the ship — everybody knows what's going on," Keating said. "The Chinese did not do that when they launched their anti-satellite test. We hope there are some lessons that become apparent to them."

In fact, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that the United States is prepared to share some information about the U.S. satellite shootdown with China, according to the Associated Press.

Gates encouraged more openness about military operations during his visit to China in November, according to the American Forces Press Service. And in January, Keating visited China in an effort to strengthen the military relationship between the U.S. and China and improve communication.

Jeanna Bryner
Jeanna Bryner

Jeanna is the editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.