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U.S. missile shoots down satellite - but why?

Critics say its motives may have included testing missile defenses or poking at China.

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Blast off: Fire Controlman 2nd Class Andrew Jackson launched a missile from the USS Lake Erie Feb. 20. Military officials said the missile hit a defunct spy satellite carrying toxic fuel.

Michael hight/U.s. navy/ap

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Yes, the Pentagon can obliterate a broken satellite tumbling at the edge of space. The question is, why bother?

That is the reaction of some experts to the successful destruction Feb. 20 of a dead US spy satellite 153 miles over the Pacific Ocean.

The official explanation – that the US wanted to prevent the toxic contents of the spacecraft's fuel tank from hitting the ground – seems a bit thin, according to James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thus critics from around the world have speculated about ulterior motives, ranging from a desire to test US ballistic missile defenses to poking China in the eye.

Mr. Lewis says he thinks the Defense Department crunched the numbers and found there was a chance the satellite might come down somewhere embarrassing, or dangerous, like the landmass of a foreign country. He thinks it was not the fuel tank's toxic hydrazine fuel, but a more general desire to prevent any impact, that led to the decision to shoot it down.

"It was a surfeit of caution," says Lewis.

A three-stage Navy SM-3 missile hit the satellite 153 miles up, just northwest of Hawaii, said military officials at a Feb. 21 news conference.

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