Does the satellite shoot-down video really show a hit?

Videos prove little in a digital age.

Published February 21, 2008 5:15PM (EST)

There really is no better source for information on the spy satellite shoot-down than my friend Noah Shachtman's Wired blog Danger Room.

Shachtman has been following the story for weeks, ever since the government determined that a dead imaging spy satellite -- part of one of the biggest Pentagon boondoggles in recent times -- would be crashing into the planet and needed to taken out with a cruise missile.

Shachtman points out this video of the shoot-down, which occurred last night, and which the governments describes as successful.

What does it look like when a cruise missile meets a spy satellite on a lonely night? Watch the clip: Sparks fly.

Speaking at a briefing (video below), Gen. James Cartwright of the Joint Chiefs says that the clip suggests that the missile blasted through the satellite's fuel tank, which was one of the Pentagon's main objectives.

Ordinarily, a satellite falling to earth wouldn't pose much of a threat to anyone. This craft, though, is carrying a boatload of the toxic rocket fuel hydrazine -- the Navy wanted to puncture the tank way up in the sky to release the fuel before the satellite entered the atmosphere, averting the risk that the fuel might be dispersed over a populated area.

Pentagon officials have described the operation as extremely tough to pull off. Never before has the U.S. trained a missile on a space vehicle; the missile, an SM-3 that has been tested successfully as part of the nascent missile-defense program (speaking of boondoggles), is designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, not satellites, and was specially modified for the job.

The shoot-down of a spy satellite has, understandably, provoked a bevy of conspiracy-type theories regarding the government's true motives. Is the Pentagon trying to hide something? Is this just an effort to test missile defense? Was the satellite a danger to any of us at all? And ... do we know that it was really shot down at all?

Here's the thing about operations way up in the sky: We can't be sure -- not to a certainty, anyway -- about anything there, not really.

Someone ought to counsel the Pentagon on the diminished power of photographic proof in the digital age (you know what, that's actually the subject of a new book I've been hearing about). Cartwright says that you can see a "fireball" and "vapor cloud" in the clip, a signal that the hydrazine was burned up. I guess I see that -- but the video lacks so much context you aren't sure what it means.

A spy satellite getting whacked before it can land and tell us its secrets? Sounds like a plot tailor-made to goose the anxieties of folks given to distrust the government, and a cloudy video isn't going to change any minds.


I just did a video on the satellite shoot-down for Current TV:

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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