U.S. Plan to Destroy Satellite a 'Cover'

The Defense Ministry said Saturday that U.S. military plans to shoot down a damaged spy satellite carrying toxic fuel could be a veiled test of U.S. missiles' capability to down enemy satellites.

The ministry accused the U.S. military of failing to provide "enough arguments" to back its plan to smash the satellite with a missile so other countries could assess possible dangers.

"There is an impression that the United States is trying to use the accident with its satellite to test its national anti-missile defense system's capability to destroy other countries' satellites," it said in a statement.

The United States has insisted that the goal of the operation is simply to protect people.

In a cable sent to all U.S. embassies abroad by the State Department, diplomats were told to draw a clear distinction between the coming attempt and last year's test by China of a missile specifically designed to take out satellites, which was criticized by the United States and other countries.

"This particular action is different than any actions that, for example, the Chinese may have taken in testing an anti-satellite weapon," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "The missions are quite different and the technical aspects of the missions are quite different."

Known by its military designation US 193, the satellite was launched in December 2006. It lost power and its central computer failed almost immediately afterward, leaving it uncontrollable. It carried a sophisticated and secret imaging sensor.

Left alone, the satellite would be expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. The military hopes to smash the satellite with a single missile fired from a Navy cruiser in the northern Pacific Ocean. About half of the 2,268-kilogram spacecraft would be expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would scatter debris over several hundred kilometers.

Military and administration officials said the satellite is carrying fuel called hydrazine that could injure or even kill people who are near it when it hits the ground.

"In fact, behind the words that the satellite represents danger, there are preparations for sophisticated tests of anti-satellite weapons," the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The crew of the international space station, meanwhile, said it was not concerned about the plans to shoot down the satellite.

Space station commander Peggy Whitson said Saturday that NASA and the Defense Department "love the station crew" and would not put them in harm's way.

Whitson, cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko and French astronaut Leopold Eyharts will be in orbit 345 kilometers above Earth when the satellite is targeted. The satellite will be about 240 kilometers up when the shot is fired.

It was unclear how close the satellite will be to the space station when it is shot down. NASA referred questions to the Defense Department, which did not immediately return a message seeking clarification.

"We're not worried about it," said Whitson during a news conference to discuss recent work by a 10-person crew made up of personnel on the space station and the shuttle Atlantis.