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U.S. general 90% sure missile destroyed toxic fuel on satellite

A top Pentagon general said that he was about 90 per cent sure that the tank of toxic hydrazine fuel on board a defective spy satellite was destroyed when a missile hit the satellite over the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday night.

A top Pentagon general said that he was about 90 per cent sure that the tank of toxic hydrazine fuel on board a defective spy satellite was destroyed when a missile hit the satellite over the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday night.

But Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told a Pentagon press conference Thursday afternoon that there were "ambiguities" in that data about the operation that would take some time to resolve.

The combined speed of the missile and satellite was about 35,000 kilometres an hour — so fast that there are gaps in the video footage, making analysis difficult. It could take experts until Friday to be completely sure about what happened in the strike.

Cartwright said the fireball and a vapour cloud that formed after the hit was most likely from the hydrazine. He said spectral analysis also indicated the presence of hydrazine after the missile strike.

The Pentagon has said the biggest chunks left after the hit were smaller than a football. Some of the debris that is heading for Earth could take 48 hours to arrive, he said.

But a group of about 30 amateur astronomers in Prince George, B.C., saw what they believe was debris from the satellite while watching the lunar eclipse on Wednesday evening.

Brian Battersby was at the Prince George Astronomical Observatory when his girlfriend pointed to something in the sky. He and others said it was debris from the satellite.

'Quite an astonishing sight'

"Many debris trails were witnessed moving from south-west to north-east at high altitude. One was especially bright and long lasting. I can recall about six bright trails and 15 fainter ones," Battersby said in an e-mail posted on several astronomy websites.

David Sluka was also there, and said "each of these objects had a yellowy gold flarelike leading edge, and leaving a luminiscent glowing tail that lasted at least a minute or so.  Quite dramatic, everyone was oohing … quite an astonishing sight."
 
The U.S. navy fired an SM-3 missile at the American satellite, striking it as it travelled 247 kilometres above the Pacific Ocean, officials said.

One of the main goals of the mission was to rupture the satellite's fuel tank, which contained 450 kilograms of hydrazine, a hazardous substance that could pose a danger to humans. The navy wanted the fuel to dissipate before entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Aim: 'to preserve human life'

"It's the hydrazine we're focused on," Cartwright said. "The intent here was to preserve human life."

The missile was launched from the USS Lake Erie, a warship designed to launch missiles at incoming enemy missiles.

China and Russia have suggested that the U.S. just wanted to test its anti-missile system, but Cartwright said that wasn't the case. The missile had to be specially modified to hit the satellite, and "this is not a missile defence system," he said.

With files from the Associated Press