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Satellite fallout

Last week's hit of a US satellite points to a need for the US to avoid weapons in space.

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The United States launched a missile last week to blast apart an ailing spy satellite and prevent harm from its toxic fuel if the satellite fell to Earth. But did this Star Wars-like feat also have a military purpose? Such a possibility sends a message about weapons in space.

The Pentagon was wisely transparent about this action. It announced its intentions and now says it will share data about the resulting debris. The US also hit its satellite in low orbit, so as to minimize space garbage. And the Defense Department insists its satellite intercept was a one-time event and not the start of an antisatellite program.

And yet no amount of explanation can change the fact that this shoot down has a crossover military benefit. It shows that the US can now fairly easily recalibrate its missile defense system into an antisatellite one. The last time the US shot down a satellite was 22 years ago, when it nailed one with a weapon in a test launch from a fighter jet. This time, the US did it with a missile from a cruiser in the Pacific.

With widespread mistrust of the US, the shoot down is fueling fears of a space arms race.

The US spends more than $12 billion a year to try to intercept incoming missiles from space (think of the recent missile tests by North Korea and Iran). In 2006, it adopted a policy to assert "space control." Last year, China launched an anti-satellite missile that exploded a defunct weather satellite. It did this in secret and left debris in a dangerously high orbit.


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